With Zetterberg gone, weight increases on Larkin's shoulders

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Dylan Larkin had 16 goals and 47 assists last season.

Detroit — A striking thing about Dylan Larkin is no one is asking if he is ready for this.

He is ready.

Great expectations have followed him. Even before the Red Wings drafted a hometown guy, fans began to anticipate a Michigan-born and raised star among the next generation.

In his rookie season, Larkin provided accomplishment and encouraged hope.

In his second campaign, he faced down twin challenges of moving to center and the increased attention of defenders.

In the third, Larkin led the team in scoring, the fifth-youngest points leader all-time for the Wings (behind Steve Yzerman, Mark Osborne, Marcel Dionne and Dale McCourt).

He also led or tied for the lead in games played, assists, points, short-handed goals, game-winning goals, shots, takeaways and multi-point games.

After signing a five-year $30.5 million contract, his fourth NHL season would have produced even greater expectations.

Then, a doctor in New York looked at Henrik Zetterberg’s back.

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And, on Wednesday, the management and coaches appointed Larkin an alternate captain for home games, with Frans Nielsen serving on the road.

Much is on Larkin’s shoulders.

Performance relies on many things. But there is little doubt about Larkin’s willingness to engage all tasks.

He provides the profile the Red Wings like to draft: Smart players who are also more responsible than average, who can be selfless.

 “Well, it’s the family for sure, his upbringing,” Ken Holland said, when asked about the source of the new alternate captain’s composure and determination.

“What’s that saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? So, obviously, it speaks to his parents.”

Holland said that after a fine season with Larkin turning 22 in July, “I don’t want to heap a bunch of expectations on him.

“We love the player. He plays hard every day. Last year, he learned to play 200 feet. He learned to stop on pucks. He’s a natural-born leader because he plays hard. He’s got a passion,” Holland said.

“He’s at the rink every day, or most every day, all summer. He’s in Newfoundland at the hockey school. He’s got his hockey school here.

“He wants to go to some camp in Toronto because (John) Tavares and (Auston) Matthews are there. He wants to go to another camp in Tampa Bay to learn more.

“He’s in the coach’s room every day looking at video. He loves hockey. He’s got a passion for hockey.”

Coach Jeff Blashill sees a disciplined and constant player who simply needs to marshal good performances as often as he can.

“I don’t have any doubt that Dylan’s a mentally tough person who has handled lots of ups and downs, and he’s worked through issues that he’s had,” Blashill said about Larkin’s fortitude and ability to thrive amid his new circumstances.

“I don’t think the expectations should be any greater than what they’ve been. I mean we’ve depended on him to be one of the go-to guys on this hockey team certainly all last year.

“You can’t give him any more minutes than what he’s got. He was on the kill. He was on the power play. He’s one of the top centers.

“So, from an expectation standpoint, we just need Dylan to go and be a good player. We don’t need Dylan to go out and be superman, he just needs to go out and be a real good player.”

Blashill said he is not necessarily expecting Larkin to avoid some difficult patches this season.

Teams will know they need not put some of their best defenders on Zetterberg and his line, and they might well target Larkin continuously.

But through three seasons, the Waterford Township native seems unflappably determined.

Long after practice Tuesday, and after almost every other player had left the Red Wings' locker room, Larkin strode off the ice and into the sanctuary.

By the time Larkin put his gloves up on the shelf of his stall, a thick scrum of media formed  around him in a tight half-circle.

So, he remained standing.

Is he aware of the expectations that follow him?

“I guess, maybe there is,” he said. “You know, do I feel it? No.

“I think we all know the reality of Z not coming back, what that leaves for our team and the hole that he leaves. 

“You know what? We all know that we have to chip in and contribute what he meant to this team, the offense that he produced and more of what he did off the ice, as well. And, him just being around and his presence.

“Our veteran guys are doing a great job of that. And, on the ice, we all need to chip in and produce what he did for us.”

Larkin’s statement revealed much about his method.

Distractions are just that. Stick to the hockey. Identify reality. It is about the team, regardless.

And besides, it is not like he does not goad himself.

“For me,” he continued, “I think it comes from within.

“I think that pressure has always been something that, since my draft year, I’ve always wanted to be better. I’ve always wanted more for myself and I want more for our team.

“I’ve said that a lot, and I’m excited I’ve got 82 games to prove it.”


Twitter @greggkrupa