Will Red Wings be able to keep together their 'dangerous' No. 1 line?
Detroit – There are many things that are frustrating about the coronavirus pandemic hitting the pause button on the NHL season.
There were 11 games left on the Detroit Red Wings’ schedule. And though it was a miserable season record-wise, there were still interesting developments to follow.
Not the least of which was the play of the Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha line.
As the season was halted, the Larkin line was duplicating the astounding success it had to start this season, and the way it finished last season.
“They’ve shown they have chemistry, and at times it's been great this year,” said coach Jeff Blashill after a late-season victory. “At times, it hasn’t been good enough. But at times, it’s been great.”
Way back in October, when the Wings began the season, the line combined for 16 points in the Wings’ victories over Nashville and Dallas (Mantha had four goals in the Dallas game) – an opening weekend that spurred so much optimism.
The Wings’ season certainly went sideways from there, but the Larkin line was certainly very good again heading into the stoppage in play.
Over the last 10 games, Larkin had 13 points (four goals, nine assists) and was held scoreless only two games in those 10.
Bertuzzi had 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in the last 11 games and had scored those three goals over the final three games.
Mantha, since returning from punctured lung, averaged a point per game with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 14 games.
In the March 8 victory over Tampa, the next-to-last game before the stoppage (ending the Wings’ 16-game losing streak to the Lightning), the line combined for 11 points in a 5-4 shootout victory.
What makes the Larkin line such an important base to build forward with is that each player bring different elements to the line, which makes it so difficult to face.
Larkin’s strengths are his ability to distribute the puck and set the pace. Bertuzzi plays with a bite to his game but adds a sneaky offensive ability. Mantha has size, goal-scoring ability, and underrated passing.
“We’ve shown we can be a good line at times this year,” Larkin said. “We want to be a great line when it matters. We’re playing to build toward something bigger than this year.”
Much of the line’s success has depended on the availability of Mantha. Twice this season, Mantha was out of the lineup with long-term injuries.
With Mantha unavailable, Blashill had to break up the Larkin line to spread offense around, and Larkin’s and Bertuzzi’s effectiveness slumped.
“It’s a bit of a shame the injuries that Mantha has been through because they started the year so, so good,” Blashill said. “It would have been nice to see what they would have done without that interruption.”
The Larkin line continued to learn this season about the responsibility and pressure of being a true No. 1 line. Their playing time reflected the trust and confidence Blashill had in them. On many nights, the Wings’ line held their own, or outplayed, the opponent’s top line.
“When you are a top line, you have to be a top line every night,” Blashill says. “There’s a lot pressure on that line, just like the (Boston’s Patrice) Bergeron line and the (Colorado’s Nathan) MacKinnon line have to perform at a high level every night.
“You’re given a lot of ice time and with that comes the burden of making sure you play great every night.
“If you have a line that’s kind of a definitive No. 1 line, which we do, and they get lots of opportunities, they have to produce at both ends of the rink.”
No one doubts these three players will be significant parts of the Wings’ future for a long time. But only Larkin is signed long-term. Bertuzzi and Mantha are both restricted free agents who are likely to get multi-year contracts this summer (or whenever this regular season finally does end).
Mantha, in particular, could be a tricky negotiation. He was headed for a career-best season before his injuries, and still had nearly a point-per-game average when the season was paused (38 points in 43 games).
The decision for the Wings, and Mantha, is whether to revisit this situation in another year, which Mantha might prefer to do. Mantha can be an unrestricted free agent after two more seasons. Or the Wings and Mantha could negotiate a long-term deal now.
Blashill, and undoubtedly most Red Wings fans, hope Larkin, Bertuzzi and Mantha will be together in Detroit for a while.
Said Blashill, “When they’re going at a high level, they’re dangerous.”