Teen Dylan Larkin energizes Red Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Dylan Larkin’s path to the NHL was direct and short, and coaches and programs in Michigan provided a way.

Among the Red Wings scoring leaders with six points, five games into his first season, Larkin, 19, is also helping defy a general policy of the franchise, one that has served it well: Patient, sustained development of young talent in Grand Rapids and Toledo.

Larkin is the first teenager in the Wings’ lineup since Jiri Hudler in the 2003-04 season.

Playing mostly on the top line with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader, his speed and skill are apparent. Larkin has been among the Wings’ better players in each game during their 3-2 start.

He is likely to have few, if any, bus trips with the Griffins to American Hockey League games.

Asked which of his previous coaches helped accomplish such a quick ascent to the NHL, he was quick and direct, as he stood in front of his dressing stall at Joe Louis Arena.

“There was quite a few,” said Larkin, who grew up in Waterford and whose father, Kevin, is a Toronto native who played collegiate soccer at Southern Indiana. “I played with my uncle Paul growing up, with the Lakeland Hawks, and it kind of grew my passion for the game.

“And I went over to Belle Tire, and played for Joe Smaza. He just kept telling me where I thought I could be.

“And I’d say another one was Doug Brown,” Larkin said, of the former Wings player. “I played with his son Christopher, and he was like a parent coach, and he taught me a lot about hockey. And he was a great guy.”

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Add to that, Coach Danton Cole and Darryl Nelson, the strength and conditioning coach at National Training and Development Program, where Larkin turned a corner toward collegiate play as part of the USA Hockey program.

Then, at the University of Michigan, it was a season with Red Berenson.

“The level of hockey here in Michigan is probably at its best, right now, with all of the Triple-A teams and all the players who are not in college and in pros,” Larkin said. “When I think of all the different options you can take, there’s so many options.

“But it all comes back to coaching.”

Impressed at young age

In the manner of all college coaches, before Larkin skated in maize and blue, Berenson watched Larkin for some years, beginning in mites.

“When I first saw him, I liked the way he skated and I liked the way he competed,” Berenson said. “He worked really hard on the ice, for a skilled player.

“And then, after that, we just saw bits and pieces of him, because he had a number of injuries that kept him from having a complete year. So, it really wasn’t until he got here that we fully appreciated the kind of player he could be.

“By then, he’d been drafted by Detroit (15th overall in 2014) — a lot of people were surprised that he was drafted that high,” Berenson said. “So, when he came here, he came in with the added expectation that he’d been a first-round pick.

“And he lived up to it, right from day one. He brought it every day. He had a good work ethic in practice.”

The desire to be good was obvious, Berenson said. And so was another key ingredient.

“The good thing is, he’s coachable as well. He’s not just a good player who’s not going to get any better.

“I mean, he’s just going to get better, as he gets older and more experienced.”

Much of what Berenson saw, Larkin’s previous coaches experienced.

They all talk about fine talent, married to hard work born of intense desire.

From mini-mites, through mites and up through pee wee travel, Larkin’s uncle said his nephew sometimes played a year ahead of his age, with the bigger kids.

“He was always that type of player: He was dominant,” said Paul Larkin of Clarkston. “He was a very smooth and powerful skater as a kid, and obviously that holds true today.”

Dylan’s commitment was key.

“I think it’s just his inner drive to be the best he can be,” Paul Larkin said. “Dylan would go home and spend hours upon hours shooting the ball on the street, shooting pucks into the net on the driveway. It wasn’t anything that he had to work on or that he had to do, he just wanted to do that all the time.

“I remember one story in particular, when one of the parents said, ‘What is it that Dylan does to make him as good as he is?’

“And I said, when you get home and take your bag and put it in your garage and you come out here for the next practice, Dylan has spent about 15 to 20 hours in between those practices, working on his skills and development.”

Level of play kept rising

Larkin continued to hone his talent in youth travel programs. After a quick stop at Honeybaked, Larkin joined Smaza’s talented roster at Belle Tire.

“Every single year we had him on our team, he did not start as the top guy but he finished as the top guy,” Smaza said. “That’s how I knew he was going to be one of those special hockey players.

“The biggest thing that Dylan had was he was just so fast. You watch him skate, and he drops his butt lower, and he’s got a real wide base. His feet are always moving. And that’s what helps him create separation from other guys, and it just adds to his speed.”

Former Red Wing Doug Brown’s son Christopher, a sixth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2014, was on the team, when Brown helped with skills development.

“Dylan was a sponge, trying to absorb as much as he could,” Doug Brown said.

“He has a terrific sense of the game, obviously — time and space. And any of the conversations I ever had with Dylan, it was very much about being a quarterback and moving the ball early, not hold on to it so that the defense can set up around you or be able to get a free shot at you.

“But it was self-motivated, self-determination.

Red Wings slow down drills to have more teaching time

“You just can’t say enough about much he wanted to be a great hockey player,” Brown said. “You can see it every day that he pushes himself.”

Then, Larkin was off to the training and development program of USA Hockey.

His ability and skill were obvious, Cole said. But well-skilled players often arrive at the program, because it recruits the best. What distinguishes players is who listens and works hard.

“He got everything out of our program that we had to offer,” Cole said. “He talked a lot with us about being a 200-foot player,” meaning a complete player from end to end on the rink.

“Dylan had to work on playing without the puck, offensively and defensively.

“I think sometimes you can get a young kid to do stick handling and shooting and all that. But, to get a guy to work on his angles or his recoveries, defensively, or his stick, defensively, that’s a little bit harder. But it’s just as important.

“He kept at that all really well, and he just kept getting better and better.”

Given adolescence, conditioning is critical.

“You never really had to tell him anything twice,” said Nelson, the strength and conditioning coach. “He always worked hard in everything that he did. He did everything the right way.

“He needed to gain some size and strength, and he did a great job there.”

Candidate for top rookie

Larkin describes his work with Nelson as essential.

“You know, I think I put on 25 pounds in my two years there, and kind of took a step forward,” Larkin said.

And then, Larkin committed to Michigan.

“We saw him play minor midget hockey, and then we followed his progress when he got to the USA program,” Berenson said.

During his one year at Michigan, Larkin participated in the world junior tournament, and returned to Ann Arbor playing at higher level.

“He really took off in the last half of the season,” Berenson said.

Continued attention to improvement is an aspect of Larkin’s development that Smaza has witnessed, and that he expects to continue through his NHL career. The season is young, but Larkin could emerge as a candidate for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. He would be the first Detroit winner since goalie Roger Crozier in 1965.

When people approached him this summer, asserting Larkin would not make the team, Smaza said he replied, “Just give the kid a chance.”

“If he gets a chance, given the opportunity to play with veterans like that, he’s just going to spread his wings and make the Red Wings a better team,” he said.

“And the Red Wings are just going to make him a better player, given the opportunity.”