Niyo: After 'tons of growth,' time is right for Dylan Larkin to captain Red Wings

John Niyo
The Detroit News

He wore the losses about as well anyone could expect in a season that threatened to make history for all the wrong reasons.

So now it’s time to see how Dylan Larkin wears the captain’s ‘C’ in Detroit, where living up to history is part of the job description.

I realize that’s probably way down the offseason list of priorities for general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jeff Blashill, who’ll return for a sixth season behind the Red Wings’ bench. But in the absence of any real hockey here for several months to come, it’s one that was top of mind this week as the team and its leadership talked about what went wrong this past season — it was a long conversation, obviously — and where they’ll go from here.

Dylan Larkin
Age: 24. Ht: 6-1. Wt: 198.
2019-20 statistics: 71 games, 19 goals, 34 assists, 53 points
Analysis: The only real question with the Wings’ leader is whether Larkin can take another step and become a further force, a true, elite No. 1 center. Just named team captain, he is the heart and soul of this organization right now.

Yzerman said last spring when he took over as GM that he wanted to take some time to observe every aspect of the organization, rather than making quick assessments or rash decisions in the early stages of a full-scale rebuilding effort.

That included the title he once held as the longest-serving team captain in NHL history, which is why the Red Wings opted to spend another year without one following Henrik Zetterberg’s retirement prior to the 2018-19 season. Instead, the team opted for alternate captains again, with Larkin and Justin Abdelkader continuing as full-timers in that role and Frans Nielsen sharing the duties with Luke Glendening.

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But in his season-ending session with the media Wednesday, Yzerman confirmed he and Blashill plan to name a permanent captain prior to the start of next season.

The expectation for some time now is that it’ll be Larkin, the Red Wings’ leading scorer the last three seasons and a homegrown prospect who still has three years remaining on the five-year, $30 million contract he signed in the summer of 2018. And if last season was a test, it sure sounds like he passed.

"I’m very impressed with him," Yzerman said. "I think being a member of the Red Wings and improving this team is very, very important to him, and he takes it seriously. He’s an excellent player for us, a very important player. He's a great leader. He’s dedicated and mentally strong and committed. I’ve been very impressed getting to know him over the course of the year."

As endorsements go, that’s about as good as it gets from Yzerman, who as we all know, isn’t one to sugarcoat things. Certainly not after the kind of season he just endured, a miserable slog that probably felt a bit like the one that preceded Jacques Demers' decision to make him the youngest captain in franchise history back in October 1986.

These Red Wings just posted the worst record in the 15-year salary-cap era of the NHL, and the third-worst record in franchise history, based on points percentage. Detroit won just five of 37 road games, ranked last in goals for (145), goals against (267), and that goal differential (minus-122 in 71 games) was second only to the 1985-86 Red Wings (minus-149 in 80 games) among franchise lows.

“We had a bad year, and it was hard,” Blashill said Thursday, summing it up neatly.

And while there some mitigating circumstance that made it worse – injuries to Anthony Mantha and Danny DeKeyser sure didn’t help – the fact of the matter is this was never going to be playoff team. Deep down, everyone probably knew it, too.

Which, in a way, made this the ultimate character test for a young corps of players led by Larkin, who’ll turn 24 later this summer. They all knew the new boss was watching, and waiting, and they knew what that meant.

In the latter half of his career, Yzerman was the kind of leader who could give direction – and alter behavior – with a few sharp words or a simple, direct look. Larkin is a long, long way from becoming that kind of driving force for his team, obviously. And who’s to say he will ever get there?

But this won't just be a decision made by default. Because it sounds like the skilled, two-way centerman learned quite a bit over the last 12 months about how the leadership role is supposed to look and feel, thanks in no small part to Yzerman’s presence.

“Having him around and getting to learn from him, having some great conversations about where our team is at and where we both want it to eventually be, was probably the most valuable thing that I could have had,” Larkin said. “One of the best things that has happened in my career.”

He says Yzerman not-so-subtly reminded him – and others, like Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi – about the importance of modeling good behavior for younger prospects, on and off the ice. That was a consistent theme from Blashill and Yzerman's predecessor as GM, Ken Holland, that wasn't always heeded in recent years, quite frankly. 

“Steve coming back really ramped up the accountability in our locker room,” Larkin admitted. “We have a great group of guys. But I think everyone was on their toes, which was a good thing.”

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Larkin, who has missed just a handful of games in his five-year NHL career, also said Yzerman pulled him aside in December to tell him something else, though.

“I had a conversation with Steve and he said to me, ‘You can’t do this all yourself,’” recalled Larkin, who struggled out of the gate coming off a career-best season in 2018-19. “I was almost trying too hard and sometimes it was hurting me. So after that I kind of took a step back and used my linemates a little more and played a little simpler … and that really helped me.”

It showed, too, even if it didn’t result in many victories for his team. Larkin averaged nearly a point per game after the Christmas break, with 11 goals and 20 assists over the final 33 games prior to the abrupt end of the season in mid-March. 

Dylan Larkin

Beyond the numbers, Blashill says he saw something else from Larkin as the season wore everyone down physically and mentally. He saw a young player showing up to work with a “fresh attitude” and embracing the chore. He also saw a fiery player who did a better job of regulating both his temperature and that of the room. The media — and the fans — saw it as well, in the way Larkin faced the media and spoke for the team after some of those brutal losses this past winter.

“I don’t even know if you can put into words today the things you learn as you go through those struggles,” Blashill said. “But you grow. And you learn to love the grind. You learn when to show emotion and when to keep your emotion in check. You learn how to (adjust) your messaging to keep the team headed in the right direction, and that’s very difficult in the times we’ve had. So there was tons of growth for him.”

That's important for a franchise heading into an offseason full of uncertainty. It could be 9-10 months without hockey for the Red Wings, but Larkin says he's been in the gym working out since the COVID-19 shutdown in March and "can't wait to get back to playing." 

"The other thing I feel in my core," he adds, "is I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been."

Sounds like a player ready for more responsibility on his plate, doesn't it? 

“I think it’d be one of the greatest honors of my life,” said Larkin, who also served as an alternate captain playing for Blashill and Team USA at the last three world championships. “It’d be something I take very seriously. To represent the Red Wings in that role, it’d be something I never imagined as a kid growing up in Detroit.”

But based on what the Red Wings saw this season, and what we heard this week, I imagine that time has finally arrived.