Detroit — The streak is gone. The old barn down on the riverfront soon will be, too. But as the Red Wings get ready to christen their new home tonight, hosting the Minnesota Wild in their regular-season opener at Little Caesars Arena, they sound eager to turn the page.
“I do think with the streak ending, it’s a new chapter,” said Dylan Larkin, the Wings’ 21-year-old center. “And it’s time for us to make our mark and get the fans excited about coming not just to see the arena, but to watch the Red Wings compete.”
Just how competitive this team will be remains to be seen, of course. The Red Wings finished with the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference last season, and there’s a general feeling around the league —around town as well — that they haven’t yet bottomed out.
But if they are to make a mark, or even generate some excitement beyond the bright lights of their new state-of-the-art venue, it’ll require something more than what they’ve had in recent years. And frankly, it’ll require something not many of us think they have at the moment.
“The league is separated by superstars,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “Generally, the best teams have a couple elite players that can separate you.”
And generally speaking, it has been a while since the Wings, who finally missed the playoffs last spring after a remarkable 25-year run, could claim either of those things.
They haven’t had a 30-goal scorer since 2008-09, the last time they reached the Stanley Cup Finals. (Four Wings netted 30-plus goals that season.) They haven’t had a point-per-game player since Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg both scored at that clip in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. They also haven’t had a defenseman finish in the top five in Norris Trophy voting since Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012, or a goalie in the top-five in the Vezina Trophy race since Dominik Hasek in 2007.
None of this is news to Red Wings fans, who’ve watched the decline and grown tired of general manager Ken Holland’s excuses for it. Or for those who’ve been clamoring for a full-fledged rebuild — the kind that offers few guarantees but generally includes the arrival of high draft picks pegged as sure-fire stars.
But whatever the reasons, and regardless of the front office’s muddled future, this is still the bottom line.
“Ultimately, we need some young guys to become elite, and elite is a hard thing,” said Blashill. “It’s a lot of different areas. It’s every single night, going against other teams’ best. It’s not just producing points — a lot of people produce points on bad teams —it’s playing winning hockey and producing points. It’s answering you guys every night when it doesn’t go great, not just when it goes good.
“Those are all the types of things that a guy like (Henrik) Zetterberg has had to shoulder for a long, long time. And ultimately at some point we need some young guys to become elite.”
And at this point, there’s little doubt who everyone is pointing to as the next best hope in that regard.
It’s Anthony Mantha, the 6-foot-5 winger with a big-time goal-scoring pedigree, and Larkin, the lightning-quick pivot who could be a hometown hero. Larkin made a big splash two years ago as the Wings’ first rookie All-Star selection since Steve Yzerman. Mantha, meanwhile, showed plenty of promise a year ago as a rookie after an early-season call-up, finishing with 17 goals in just 60 games. Not coincidentally, they’ll find themselves paired together on a line tonight — along with Martin Frk, a power-play specialist with a booming one-timer — hoping to build off the chemistry they developed through training camp and the preseason.
They may not be the Wings’ top line — that’d be the one Zetterberg centers with Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist — but it’s hard to argue it’s not the most important one.
“We’re kind of at the point in our careers where it’s time to take that role,” Larkin said. “We’re in our second or third year (in the NHL), our fourth or fifth year as pros. It’s something where we don’t want to be looked at as kids. We want to play like men and produce. So it’s time, definitely.”
If only because they’ll get plenty of it, and, as Blashill points out, “When you get lots of ice time, there’s responsibility that comes with that. They’ll have a big say in how our season goes.”
Not to mention their own futures, with both young players scheduled to be restricted free agents next summer.
Larkin’s “sophomore slump” — a drop in production coupled with an ugly minus-28 rating — was a function of many things, obviously. But Larkin seems buoyed by a full-time return to his natural center position, as well as the experience gained playing a key role for Blashill with Team USA at the World Championships last spring.
He’s rediscovering his talents as a shot-maker rather than a shot-taker, and though he’s one of the NHL’s fastest skaters, Larkin spent the offseason trying to get stronger on the puck. Speed kills, but possession is still nine-tenths of the law in this league.
“That’s your goal: You want to have players that want to play with you, and you want to have the puck a ton,” Larkin said. “You look at all the elite first-line centers that make players on their line better, and I’ve got a big chance playing with those two guys. … I look at myself and, if they’re not producing, it’s on me.”
So is last year, he adds. And for a 21-year-old, that’s an important step:
He knows his approach needs to be better — on and off the ice — for the team to do more. Whereas he came in last year and “thought it was going to be a little bit easy and kind of had it figured out” after that impressive NHL debut, with 23 goals and 45 points at age 19, now he knows that’s not that case at all.
“There were certain habits that he had to change,” said Blashill, “and changing habits is not easy.”
‘We need to step up’
The Red Wings spent much of last season — the last couple years, really — trying to drive that point home with Mantha as well. And while some of that criticism seemed a bit gratuitous, the 23-year-old admits, “I learned a lot here last year.”
The goal this year, he says, is “not to have a slump.” And if you ask him about individual goals, he’ll smile and tell you he prefers to keep them to himself. But certainly he’ll be expected to hit 25 goals. After all, this is a guy who scored 81 goals in 81 games, including the playoffs, his final year of junior hockey.
What about 30 goals, then?
“I would love it, I’m not gonna lie,” Mantha laughed. “If you want to give me 50, give me 50.”
But whatever the number, they’ll be given an opportunity — and they know it.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone,” Larkin said. “We didn’t have the year we wanted to, collectively, and a lot of guys individually. But we need to step up for the team and win some games.”