Dylan Larkin Offers Beacon of Hope in Detroit
From late October to early December, the Detroit Red Wings posted an 11-4-1 record. Despite a slow start to the season and a seemingly mediocre roster, the team launched up the standings and had some wondering if it would be back in the postseason conversation sooner rather than later.
That ray of light was short-lived.
Detroit has gone 7-14-4 since that hot streak and looks very much like the old (highest average age in the league) and outgunned group it actually is. In all likelihood, the Wings will miss the postseason for the third straight year after watching their 25-season playoff streak come to an end in 2016-17. If that is indeed the case, it still will not have been a wasted campaign for one reason: Dylan Larkin has blossomed into a two-way star.
Amid a trying period for his team, the 22-year-old center has reached new heights as an all-around player. He’s produced 48 points in 51 games to maintain his upward scoring trajectory (0.77 PPG to 0.94 PPG) and is regularly the best Red Wing on the ice. On many nights, he’s the best player to suit up for either team.
With his powerful skating stride and quick release, he’s a nightmare to contain. He may not possess the ability to dangle through defenders at will, but his direct approach lets him blow by them or outwork them in the dirty areas.
More importantly, he’s performed this well while shouldering a heavy three-zone burden.
If head coach Jeff Blashill has done anything right in his time behind the bench — and there hasn’t been much to write home about — it’s his development of Larkin. That sophomore slump (32 points in 80 games, career-worst marks in virtually every metric) is long gone. The 15th overall pick in 2014 has emerged as one of the finest young forwards in the game. He’s also grabbed the reins and assumed a leadership role on a team that has appeared rudderless of late.
On the season, Detroit controls a mere 48.2% of the shot attempts (24th) and 47.3% of the scoring chances (25th) at 5-on-5. When Larkin’s on the ice, the Red Wings’ CF% and SCF% rise to 53.7 and 53.1, respectively. Those are tremendous numbers that reflect how much better the club is during his shifts.
And he’s achieving these results against stiff competition, as Blashill isn’t afraid to deploy Larkin’s line against the opposition’s top forwards. The young center has always boasted speed to burn, but he’s paired that mobility with a tireless work ethic, an ever-improving hockey IQ and greater consistency in an effort to win those pivotal power-on-power matchups.
Though it sounds odd to suggest about a 22-year-old, there’s now a maturity to his contributions. An attention to detail. He works his tail off in the trenches. He stays on the right side of the puck and resists the temptation to take shortcuts. As such, the coaching staff feels confident enough to lean on him early and often. Only seven forwards average more ice time and only six forwards have taken more faceoffs this season. He’s rewarded that faith with strong outings on a regular basis as well as a terrific 54.6% win rate at the dot.
While Larkin will never lead the league in any particular category, he can offer first-line production and give opposing stars a tough night at the office.
With his effortless skating, he can smother the other team’s designs before they even materialize. He may not have Patrice Bergeron’s fundamentals, but he’s a true rarity nonetheless as a two-way center who can unleash pure speed as a defensive tool. Since he’s learning to extract every last ounce of its usefulness, there’s no floating or tunnel vision to be found.
In his first two pro campaigns, he would leap off the screen on a dazzling rush and then occasionally disappear for stretches. That’s no longer the case. He’s now continually engaged in the guts of the game.
Perhaps no player has benefited from Larkin’s engagement more than Gustav Nyquist (43 points in 51 games). The 29-year-old winger hasn’t looked this threatening since 2013-14 (48 points in 57 games), and that’s because he’s been granted so many additional touches. With the young center, his line has posted a 56.5 CF% and 56.7 SCF%. Without him, those figures plummet to a 43.6 CF% and 44.1 SCF%.
For a playmaker who isn’t especially visible without the puck, those possessions are a godsend. He’s roped into the action and given the opportunity to attack defenses. He can actually impact the outcome rather than waiting on the perimeter in perpetuity.
There’s more to the story too.
Larkin has enjoyed a wonderful year in spite of a team-low 6.24 on-ice shooting percentage. Among the 234 forwards who’ve played at least 500 even-strength minutes this season, his OISH% ranks 203rd. In other words, his counting stats aren’t displaying how effective he’s been for the Red Wings in 2018-19. If his puck luck normalizes, he should surpass the point-per-game threshold for the first time in his career.
The scary part is he hasn’t fulfilled his full potential yet — especially on the power play. With great results so far and even more left to give, that’s certainly a reason for optimism.
Beyond his individual performance, Larkin’s development is huge because it provides the organization with a young star who already plays the right way. Unlike many up-and-comers, he doesn’t cheat for offense. The bad habits have largely been purged and replaced with a commitment to team hockey. Each backcheck and puck battle is executed in service of the big picture.
Assuming Detroit phases out some of its veterans and introduces more prospects into the mix, they’ll have a 22-year-old leader to show them the ropes and lighten their load. Larkin can handle the all-situations responsibility while the kids adjust to the NHL at their own pace.
The Red Wings must lay down a sturdy foundation in order to compete in the not-so-distant future. As such, Larkin has picked the perfect moment to deliver a banner year and stake his claim on the club.
This is his team now.
While 2018-19 may feel like a long and fruitless season, Detroit should take comfort in the fact that its young star has established the right culture to build around.