Red Wings trust Dylan Larkin with larger role

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

 

Dylan Larkin

Detroit – How much of a rink rat is Dylan Larkin?

Larkin could've had five days to recuperate after the World Cup of Hockey, then rejoin the Red Wings for training camp.

Instead, a day after Team North America was eliminated, Larkin was already in Traverse City with his teammates and two days later, he was on the ice practicing.

The alternative would have been too much time without hockey.

So, no wonder Larkin was antsy earlier this week waiting for the regular season to begin against the Lighting Thursday in Tampa Bay.

“It’s been a long summer,” Larkin said. “I’m ready to go.”

Larkin, 20, burst on the NHL landscape last season, enjoying a rookie season that exceeded most people’s expectations.

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As Larkin enters his second season, he could be even more motivated to prove doubters wrong.

► Put to rest the memory of his two different halves during Larkin’s rookie season. He had 33 points before the All-Star break, and 12 afterward, the grind of the NHL season apparently having an effect.

► Erase a disappointing World Cup experience, including being a healthy scratch for the third and final medal round-qualifying game.

► Conquering the challenge of moving to center, after mostly playing on a wing last season.

Those are the types of chips that Larkin will gladly want to knock of his shoulder as the long NHL season drags on.

“The thing, to me, that can really separate Dylan is his competitive fire and desire,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “He wants to prove that he is one of the best players.”

Larkin had 45 points, including 23 goals, last season and was in conversation most of the winter for Rookie of the Year voting with the likes of Connor McDavid (Edmonton) and Jack Eichel (Buffalo).

But after the All-Star break – where Larkin won the fastest skater competition – Larkin had 8 goals and 4 assists, and was a minus-13 in 32 games.

Larkin had four goals and two assists over the last 19 games.

“It’s hard to sustain the first full season,” said captain Henrik Zetterberg, who went through a similar rookie season roller coaster. “Just everything around, with the attention, the traveling, you get tired.

“Dylan’s been through it for one year and he knows what more to expect this year.

“But saying that, the year he had last year, no one really expected what he did, and if he can have the same type of year, a lot of guys would be happy.”

Larkin feels he’s better prepared for the rigors of his second NHL season.

He’s gained five pounds of muscle, went through a summer of NHL off-season workouts, and knows mentally how to prepare.

“I don’t just want to get through it, I want to have a good year,” Larkin said. “I want to play well, play all 82 games, so I’ve been preparing for that. It starts one game at a time, and day at a time, and getting better.”

Then, you have the World Cup tournament, playing on the Team North America, under age-23 team, in which Larkin ultimately became an extra forward.

Henrik Zetterberg and Dylan Larkin

That will likely spur Larkin this season.

“I’m not going to dwell on it,” said Larkin after arriving in training camp. “I get 82 more chances to prove myself and maybe show them I should have been playing in the last game (for North America).”

Being around the World Cup atmosphere should be a benefit.

“Being part of that, just to see the players we had and the way we played, it was exciting to be part of it,” Larkin said. “I take away learning from guys like Connor McDavid and how he skates, learning little tricks from him, and guys like Nathan MacKinnon and Auston Matthews. It was really cool.”

The move to center is one that most analysts expected given Larkin played the position at Michigan and in the youth ranks.

His speed, tenacity, and responsibility at both ends of the rink should make the move from wing a success.

“He has a skill set that lends itself to center even better than wing because he likes to hunt pucks,” Blashill said. “As a center, you can kind of anticipate where the puck is going and go get it. When I talked to the USA Hockey coaching staff, (coach) John Hynes said he thought his (Larkin’s) defensive instincts were better at center. It just comes down to how quickly he can get real good at faceoffs.

“His competitiveness level is so high, he’s going to find a way to become good at it. It’ll help our hockey team to have him in those spots, and he’s been a center most of his career. He learned a lot of important lessons on the wing, he got a chance obviously to learn from two of the best two-way centers in the game in Pavel (Datsyuk) and Hank (Zetterberg) and he’s a fast learner.

“I’ve got a lot of trust in him.”

Larkin views playing center as taking possession of a line.

“It’s a whole new challenge, it’s kind of owning a line,” Larkin said. “A guy like Henrik Zetterberg, he controls that line. If Z isn’t on that night, it’s going to be tough for the other players. So I have to work on faceoffs and work on little details that will make me a better player all the way around, in the defensive zone.

“It’s a challenge but I want to keep building.”

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► NHL preview: Western Conference predictions

► Video: Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg