Detroit — This couldn’t have been easy, seemingly each and every night last winter and spring, but Dylan Larkin did it.
After almost every Red Wings loss — and obviously there were a lot of those — Larkin would be there for every reporter who needed him, usually talking about another blowout defeat and explaining what went wrong.
People around hockey noticed. They noticed Larkin’s growth as a leader and as an on-ice hockey player.
Teammates, too, noticed the maturity that Larkin showed and continues to show.
“First and foremost, every night, no matter the outcome, he was facing the media and answering questions about the shortcomings of our team,” said Luke Glendening, an alternate captain on the Wings and someone who has been through all of Larkin’s five seasons with the Wings. “He handled it with grace, which is not an easy thing to do at his age (24).
“He led the way most nights for us. He was our best player, worked hard, competed. He did things the right way.”
In an entirely forgettable Red Wings season, Larkin taking another step forward in his career and another step toward being talked about among the best players in the NHL was a silver lining for the organization.
Though Larkin’s statistics took a downward path, he still led the team with 53 points. His further evolution into a two-way player who can be counted on to shut down opposing offensive stars was also apparent.
But what may have stood out most was that intangible of being a leader, never letting teammates give up when it would have been easy to do so.
“There were multiple games, in the middle of games, after games, where he would step up when something needed to be said and he would say it,” Glendening said.
As a captain would. Which is why most people expect general manager Steve Yzerman to name Larkin the captain before the next NHL regular season.
No one doubts Larkin is ready for such a role. Even at the still tender age of 24.
“Based on the Wings’ personnel, I can’t see a better fit,” said Kevin Weekes, an NHL Network analyst who was an 11-year goaltender in the league.
‘He’s going to deliver’
Craig Button has scouted and analyzed hockey players for decades as an NHL executive and now is Director of Scouting for Canadian sports network TSN.
Button has watched Larkin play since he was 15 years old. In the almost decade since, Button has seen Larkin evolve and grow into a more diversified player, a player who can be counted on at both sides of the rink.
“He’s such a well-rounded, complete player,” Button said. “As a coach, you can put Dylan in any situation and not only does he meet the challenge, but he’s going to deliver.
“Whether it’s penalty killing, force turnovers, score a goal, make a play, he’s going to get it done.”
And with the current state of the Red Wings, Larkin is making those plays in a certain sort of vacuum.
“He’s doing it without the top-end players you need to support around him,” Button said.
Button cited the Vancouver Canucks and noted how young stars such as Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and Quinn Hughes (Michigan) became better players through key veteran acquisitions by management last offseason and at the trade deadline.
As Yzerman continues to rebuild and strengthen the Wings, Button believes Larkin will become that much of a better player, too.
“Dylan Larkin needs more players around him,” Button said. “He’s clearly their best player. Tyler Bertuzzi gives you an element and Anthony Mantha is a goal scorer. But you look at Dylan Larkin, there’s no comparable for him.
Weekes likes the way Larkin has progressed during his five NHL seasons, but sees clear ways for Larkin to get better and be more impactful.
“A lot has been expected of him, in his own individual game, and the fact he is a Michigander, that’s huge,” Weekes said. “Expectations are high and if you look at his production rates, they could be higher but he can be more productive as long as he plays in the defensive zone.
“If he values playing in the defensive zone more, he doesn’t need to be a ‘cheat’ guy because he doesn’t need to cheat to create offense because of his speed. And that’s not unique to him. For a lot of young players it starts in the defensive zone. But with Dylan, that’ll help his progression because he’s got that elite speed, explosive speed, and it’s the type of speed that gives him separation.”
Not a lost season
As difficult as the 2019-20 season was for the Wings, there could be a chance to salvage something for the future.
Coach Jeff Blashill explained after the season ended how this past campaign will benefit Larkin for the rest of his career.
“He has great inner drive, and he’s going to help grind this organization into better days,” Blashill said. “I don’t even know if you can put into words the things you learn as you go through those struggles but you grow. You learn to love the grind, when to show emotion, when to keep your emotion in check. You learn how to keep your messaging to keep the team headed in the right direction — and that’s very difficult in the times we’ve had.
“There was tons of growth for him. His play the second half of the year, his points and his play were a lot better. Part of that is grinding through those times where it was difficult and overcoming them and just coming with that fresh attitude every day that I’m going to enjoy and love the grind and I’m going to work us to better days.”
Weekes sees this past season as something that Larkin can take forward in terms of not wanting to be on the losing side again.
Night after night. Game after game after game. Losses endlessly piling up.
“You don’t want to be on the wrong side of games anymore,” Weekes said.
Button sees a comparable situation between how Yzerman dealt with a young star in Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos, when Yzerman was managing the Lightning, and how Yzerman helped Stamkos grow into the player he has become.
Button feels Yzerman will help Larkin along the way, after going through a formative season as this one was.
“The good players, they have high expectations of themselves. And as leaders, as a captain, they wear every loss on their sleeves,” Button said. “But it’s not a result — every game, every loss — of their play. It’s the entire team, but they take it personally.
“Dylan is driven and he’s going to give you everything he has. But Steve can just keep him settled, keep him understanding to keep doing what you’re doing, and keep being a competitor, but everything doesn’t fall on your shoulders. That’s one of the big challenges for player like Dylan.
“Steve can be a big influence that way.”
Yzerman, in his end-of-season review of the Wings, spoke glowingly of Larkin, a player Yzerman wasn’t entirely familiar with entering his first season as the Wings’ GM.
“Being a member of the Red Wings and improving this team is very important to him, and he takes it seriously,” Yzerman said. “He’s a very important player, he’s a great leader, and he’s dedicated and mentally strong and committed.
“I’ve been very impressed in getting to know him over the course of the year.”
Button feels Larkin is a natural choice to be captain and is ready for the challenge. But, again, Button feels it’ll be important for Yzerman to surround Larkin with the type of talent that will bring out the best in all of Larkin’s qualities.
“Dylan has grown up in the area, he knows all about the Red Wings, he knows what they stand for,” Button said. “He wants to deliver and that’s what I mean when I say Dylan is a difference-maker. Dylan is trying to deal with being a good player on the ice and a leader off the ice, but he’s more than capable of that at his age.”
Giving Larkin the captaincy, and the responsibility that comes with it, could put him in a position to thrive.
“For Dylan it would be a matter of responsibility and having that will help him potentially,” Weekes said. “Based on his skill set, there’s no reason he can’t be a 25 (goals) and 35 (assists) guy, or a 30 and 30 guy every year.”
For his part, Larkin has taken the speculation of him ascending to team captain with grace and patience.
Like Button said, Larkin grew up watching Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg wear the ‘C’ and lead the Wings in their own subtle ways.
Larkin, in his season-ending interview with the media, spelled out how humbling it would be for him to follow in that lineage and help the Wings get back to the winning ways that were common with those players.
“It would be one of the greatest honors of my life,” Larkin said. “It would be something that I take very seriously. To represent the Red Wings in that role would be something that I never imagined that I would be as a kid growing up in Detroit. I played my whole career here, my whole life here, and you see the players, even Steve himself, have been the ultimate Red Wings.
“They’re not only great players but great people in the community. It would be a great honor, but I’m not going to say that’s my only goal or if it doesn’t happen that I’m going to be upset about it.
“I’m going to go about my business and I’m going to perform for this team and the fans. I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been.”