Detroit — Dylan Larkin leaped over the boards on a line change, directly in front of a Red Wings rush into the Flyers’ zone.
Perfect position for the speedy scorer.
As the play developed, he stumbled. It was as if Larkin tripped over the blue line; a rare moment of awkwardness in a glittering three-month debut.
Back on the bench at the end of the shift, Larkin sat at the far end adjacent to the broadcasting position between the teams. After a whistle, he placed his head firmly against the Plexiglas to his right, to better see a television monitor with the live feed of replays.
He left it there, absorbing what he saw.
A look of disgust crossed his young face. He shook his head and slammed his stick into the boards in front of him.
A promising rush evaporated. Making it worse, the score was 0-0.
For a few seconds, Larkin fumed. Then, at the drop of the puck, his attention returned to the game.
He impresses with his speed, skill and insight, amid one of the finest starts by a rookie in the long history of the Red Wings. He skates Sunday as the first rookie All-Star from the club since Steve Yzerman, 31 years ago.
And as fans and observers get to know Larkin, his seriousness, discretion and low-key way provide the impression of an understated, self-possessed prodigy.
But his fervor blisters.
As perceptions grow and linger, glimpses of Larkin’s passion rise: his momentary disgust at the scoring chance squandered, the rare and brief bit of chirping at referees on the way to the penalty box, a reproachful shaking of his head when an opponent’s aggression is intended to take him off his game.
Larkin’s monumental reaction to absorbing a walloping high stick from the Sabres’ Marcus Foligno last Friday is perhaps the plainest evidence.
Foligno’s abusive carelessness bloodied Larkin’s nose, chipped a tooth, ramped his emotions, steeled his resolve, freshened his play and — along with Petr Mrazek’s Vezina-quality goaltending — resulted in another road win in January for the Wings.
After the game, Larkin spoke of the incident with the familiar quiet succinctness.
But he revealed much.
“It ticked me off, a little bit,” he said. “So I was playing with some edge.”
That is nothing new.
“I think every time I’ve gone on the ice with him, or just watched him, he plays with a passion,” said Zach Werenski, of Grosse Pointe, the Blue Jackets’ 2015 first-round draft choice and sophomore defenseman at Michigan. Werenski played with Larkin for several years with Belle Tire, the USA U-17 and U-18 teams and, last season, for the Wolverines.
“He wants to go out there and be the best player he can be, but he wants to win. Really, that’s why he plays with that passion. He wants the Red Wings to win.
“With his competitive nature, that’s just how he is.”
A little more cool
An impressive aspect of Larkin’s play to date is his toleration of an NHL tradition: the targeting of young stars, hoping to test their mettle and disrupt their play.
One tripping penalty against Larkin almost certainly resulted from that sort of frustration. But almost 50 games into the campaign, his discipline in response to the purposeful aggression is noteworthy.
Especially because far more fiery responses are rooted in Larkin’s temperament.
Three seasons ago, at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, then in Ann Arbor, the 16-year-old Larkin accepted instruction about how to deal with his penchant for boiling, spontaneous counterattacks.
Danton Cole, a former NHL and Spartans player and collegiate coach, coaches in the development program where, over two seasons of constant training and full junior hockey and international schedules, he gets to know players like Larkin and Werenski inside out.
“Edgewise, believe it or not, Dylan’s got a pretty good, kind of nasty streak to him,” Cole said. “The first year, I just tried to get him to try to rein that in, a little bit.
“A guy would hit him, and he’d two-hand the guy right back.”
Mickey Redmond calls them “B.C. Two-handers.” Players, some from western Canada, which retains a reputation for a somewhat rougher brand of play, grab their sticks firmly with both hands, like a cudgel, and they wind up and strike opponents with considerable force.
Larkin’s hometown, Waterford Township, may be some distance from British Columbia. But, by mid-adolescence, he had developed at least a similar technique.
“He needed to be a little bit more selective with his response,” Cole said, intending some humor.
“He’s a very reserved young man off the ice. But when you get him in a workout situation, when there’s a competition, that’s where you see more of his competitive nature and personality.
“It burns pretty deep within him,” Cole said. “When you get him in the competition-type things, well, he really goes.”
Focused on winning
At the national training program, sports psychologists talk about it with the young hopefuls: resolving and refocusing raw emotions, especially the urge for retributive violence that often arises in hockey.
Cole said the person who worked with Larkin’s age group called it “the temperature gauge.”
“It can’t get too hot. It can’t get too cold,” Cole said. “You know, it’s somewhere in the middle. There is where you’ve got to find kind of the right temp, where you play your game at.
“I think Dylan has kind of found that. Whereas, before, you know, it was maybe a little too much. I think he’s got it in a pretty good spot now, where he’s focused.
“But the compete and the battle is still there.”
It was an important step in Larkin’s development. Characteristically, he was eager to learn.
As he puts the All-Star Game behind him, looks on to the rest of the season and listens to what the veterans and coaches around him say about building an NHL career and persisting to the point of becoming an outstanding player, Larkin is likely to find passion is an ally.
The approach, properly managed, can propel players through prominent careers. And Larkin, and some of those getting to know him, say his aspirations are that high.
Observers talk about his motor, the speed and intention that can determine so much on the ice. But his internal, emotional drivetrain, while less obvious, will significantly influence the course of his career.
“I think his makeup is a lot of what makes him great,” coach Jeff Blashill said, the morning before the stick to Larkin’s face in Buffalo.
“I think among the biggest keys to individual success is certainly inner drive, and he’s got great, great inner drive.
“He wants to be great, and he comes every day to do the things it takes,” Blashill said.
“He’s got great examples of veterans who approach it the same way, in our locker room. He’s learned from that as well.
“The other part of Dylan that’s going to make him special, I think, in the end, is his willingness to learn and get better.”