Dylan Larkin still can’t swing a golf club, but at least he’s been able to shed the neck brace and drive his car.
His season ended with a literal pain in the neck, suffered when Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn pushed his stick into Larkin’s spine after a faceoff late in the April 20th game. Larkin said he spent a couple of days in the hospital, could barely walk when he was released and needed a chauffeur for several weeks. It was a lousy end to a frustrating season for the Detroit Red Wings’ first-year captain.
“I was upset when it happened, I was pretty hurt,” Larkin said Wednesday. “I don’t really ever see a time in a game when I want to crosscheck somebody when they’re down. I just have to be careful and use it as a learning experience that you have to protect yourself even on faceoffs.
“Right now the most important thing is resting and letting it heal. I believe I got pretty lucky and I don’t have to have surgery.”
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Benn escaped unscathed, disciplined neither by the NHL nor on the ice by the Wings, who played the Stars again April 22 and 24. Larkin expects to be ready for the start of next season and hopes to begin training in mid-June. For now, he still’s in the stage where he has to take it easy.
“It’s part of what we do, what we sign up for,” he said. “I’m feeling a lot better, moving around. I’m able to drive, but not golf. I can’t swing a club.”
Larkin, 24, had nine goals and 14 assists in 44 games, his 23 points three behind team points leader Filip Hronek. His 0.52 points-per-game average was the lowest of his career since his second year in the league, but the guy who named him captain liked aspects of what he saw.
“Overall I thought Dylan had a good year,” general manager Steve Yzerman said. “I don’t think there’s anyone that would ever question his work ethic, his competitiveness in any game that he plays. I would never come home from a game thinking Dylan didn’t bring it. He’s a really good person, he really cares about the Red Wings, he’s driven. Overall, his numbers, his goals, statistics, aren’t great, but I think he played well.
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“His leadership, his work ethic, his determination are very, very important, even when the numbers aren’t. Ultimately I see Dylan Larkin as an outstanding two-way player. I don’t ever expect or think we need him to lead the league in scoring. I want him to be a good player at both ends of the rink and focus on that. My goal for him, and we’ve talked about it, is to strive to be one of the best two-way players in the game. He’s got the skill, the strength and the skating ability and the work ethic to do that.”
Yzerman famously evolved from an offensive juggernaut early in his career in a Selke Trophy-winning forward. Since Yzerman became GM in April 2019, he and Larkin have had numerous conversations about playing the right way.
“His words carry a lot of weight,” Larkin said. “I’m someone that you don’t have to tell me things twice. I listen and try to bring it into my game and do it in my own way. It’s something I’m still working on.”
Larkin’s growth as a two-way forward has been ongoing since coach Jeff Blashill put Larkin on the team in 2015, a year after Larkin was drafted. Henrik Zetterberg was an early mentor. The Wings know Larkin can produce, and that his numbers till improve as the Wings add more skilled players.
“Some years the production is up and you can play the same and some years the production is down,” Blashill said. “That’s why the biggest key for Dylan is to be as great a two-way player as humanly possible, to be as great a winning hockey player as possible. Because then when the years when production is down, he’s still making a huge impact on the team.
“If your best players are those great two-way winning players, it starts to build towards being a winning hockey team. Dylan knows that. He’s worked extremely hard at it over the six years we’ve been together. His work ethic and compete level is second to none.”
Larkin’s season began with two goals in the second game, but by the third game two teammates had to enter COVID-19 quarantine and, less than a week in, that number grew to five. At the end of January, linemate Tyler Bertuzzi was lost to a back injury. Larkin didn’t score a goal from Feb. 3-25.
“For myself, it was a little bit disappointing of a year,” he said. “I played through a lot of things. I lost Tyler early in the season, someone I kind of count on. When things aren’t going well and you don’t have confidence, having him in there, he always plays a simple game, it’s huge. I missed him.”
The focus now is on healing, and being ready to lead the Wings to better things as soon as autumn.
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.