Detroit Red Wings’ Top Line Reaching New Heights

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 05: Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin (71) celebrates a Detroit goal during the NHL game between the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings, held on October 5, 2019, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire)

There hasn’t been much excitement in Hockeytown over the past few years, but the Detroit Red Wings’ patience may finally be paying off. Last season, Dylan Larkin emerged as one of the game’s brightest young stars and a clear leader for a franchise in dire need of direction. In 2019-20, his wingers have also stepped up to re-energize the Motor City. While the Red Wings remain outgunned on most nights, they’ve opened the year with a 3-1-0 record on the strength of a wonderful top unit consisting of Larkin (6 points in 4 games), Anthony Mantha (8 points in 4 games) and Tyler Bertuzzi (6 points in 4 games). They all sit in the top 25 in scoring and their oldest member (Mantha) is 25 years old.

Yeah, that constitutes a good reason for optimism.

Beyond raw production, the trio has driven play very well by controlling 51.9% of the shot attempts, 53.5% of the scoring chances and 66.7% of the high-danger opportunities for a 62.9% expected goal share at 5-on-5. Lights-out shooting has pushed its actual GF% to 77.8, but the line will still be a handful to defend once its conversion rate normalizes because it dictates such a significant portion of the action.

Larkin plays a major role in that regard. Fresh off a 73-point campaign, the 23-year-old isn’t resting on his laurels. He just plays at a blistering pace that few can contend with. He may not possess jaw-dropping talent, but he combines a solid skill set with tenacity and all-world speed. The amount of ground he can cover in one shift is staggering. Whether he’s hounding the puck or dashing up the ice on a rush, opponents seldom get a moment to breathe. If you spend more than 20 seconds in your end during one of his shifts…you’re in trouble. He can sense blood in the water and will simply buzz around helpless, tired defenders until the right chance materializes.

On the other side of the puck, he’s continually improving. Though he’s not a proper shutdown pivot, he can hold his own against top lines in much the same way that Brayden Point can in Tampa Bay: through healthy production and a motor that doesn’t stop running. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve scored one goal or five against his line. He embraces the challenge and keeps coming at you. Larkin’s underlying numbers indicate that last year’s breakout was no fluke either. He’s become a true two-way menace.

The difference this season is that he’s no longer riding solo.

It’s often suggested that taller players take longer to develop because they need to grow into their frame. That certainly seems like the case for Mantha. The 20th overall pick in 2013 had shown glimpses of great promise in recent years, but this is more than a flash in the pan. The 6’5” sniper now weighs 234 pounds and looks stronger and more confident than ever. He’s already scored six times and is beginning to impose his will in one-on-one situations because of his size, reach and terrific release. He’s constantly on the prowl for shooting opportunities and is beating netminders clean.

Better yet, he’s leveraging his build in open space too. Once a bit of a passenger, Mantha has become fond of driving to the net to generate his own chances. A player with that wingspan and mobility barreling down the ice will give even the stingiest blueliners issues. It’s no happy coincidence that his newfound willingness to take charge has resulted in the highest individual points percentage of his career (85.7). While his on-ice shooting percentage is sure to drop from a ridiculous 19.4 to start the year, he’s laying down the foundation for sustained quality offense by setting high-water marks in scoring chances, high-danger bids and expected goals. Shocker: Putting yourself in better position to score tends to lead to more goals.

 

Then there’s Bertuzzi. The 24-year-old offers much-needed balance to his unit via grit, good instincts and just enough skill to hang with the big guns. He also compensates for a slight lack of wheels with the guts required to stand tall in the belly of the beast. Bertuzzi has registered 89% of his shots from the slot, which not only generates screen and deflection opportunities but benefits the line’s spacing as well. Mantha can score from anywhere, Larkin excels when he’s zipping around the offensive zone and Bertuzzi offers a hard-nosed presence that grounds the line when opponents slow the pace down to a crawl.

Detroit probably realized it was on to something special when the line put up a 55.7 CF%, 56.3 SCF%, 56.2 HDCF% and 57.9 GF% toward the end of last season. However, no one was expecting this.

Mantha’s progression into a world-class finisher has opened the floodgates for a group that can now control play and fill up the scoresheet. Bertuzzi is becoming increasingly comfortable with his role and Larkin is building on the tidal wave of momentum he created in 2018-19. Unfortunately, this trio is doing virtually all of the heavy lifting at the moment. When anyone else is on the ice at even strength, Detroit owns 22.2% of the goals scored. That’s…awful. Offensive defenseman Mike Green (0 points in 4 games) has yet to deliver any offense, whereas veterans Frans Nielsen (0 points in 2 games), Valtteri Filppula (2 points in 4 games) and Trevor Daley (0 points in 2 games) are struggling to stay afloat.

On the bright side, Filip Hronek’s (3 points in 4 games) shot is becoming a serious weapon from the point. Taro Hirose (2 points in 4 games) looks the part of a capable NHL playmaker and Andreas Athanasiou’s (1 point in 2 games) return from injury should bolster the club’s secondary scoring. The rocket-fueled 25-year-old posted 54 points in 76 games a year ago.

As it stands, though, this is pretty much a one-line team. And you know what? That’s still a whole lot better than last season’s outlook.