How being himself enabled Dylan Larkin to be the All-Star the Detroit Red Wings need

Detroit Free Press

When he let go of trying to do everything, everything became much easier.

Dylan Larkin is feeling more like the player he wants to be, the player the Detroit Red Wings need him to be. He has been their most consistent performer, and is on pace to surpass the 30-goal mark for a second time in his career. Larkin’s performance made him a natural to be the Wings’ representative at this weekend’s NHL All-Star game; the first time he went was in 2016, when he was the first Wings rookie to play in the event since Steve Yzerman in 1984.

“I’ve really just tried to focus on staying in the middle and being there for the guys and winning hockey games,” Larkin said. “When you do that you put the team first and have that mentality, it is amazing what it does for you personally. I just try and show up every night and play hard.”

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A year ago, Larkin was in his first weeks as captain, the Wings were reeling as five players were in COVID-19 protocol, and from there the season became a blur of challenges that ended in debilitating pain. Larkin had nine goals and 23 points in 44 games on April 20, when he left a game against Dallas after suffering a neck injury when Stars captain Jamie Benn shoved his stick into Larkin’s spine during a faceoff. Larkin was hospitalized, spent time in a neck brace and endured a summer of limited mobility. The forced time off from his usual offseason training helped Larkin gain perspective, and he came into the season refreshed and refocused.

“I think the mentality has been to stay the course, to really just focus game in and game out what I have to bring to the table for the team,” Larkin said. “And as we’ve improved our roster, it’s taken a lot of pressure off of myself to feel like I have to try and be everything and do everything.”

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This is Larkin’s seventh season. He’s only 25, but he made the team at 19, a year after the Wings drafted him at No. 15 in the 2014 draft. He’s been the team’s No. 1 center since Henrik Zetterberg retired in 2017 and endured the growing pains as the franchise hit reset after a 25-season playoff streak ended in 2017.

The 2019-20 season was particularly miserable, as the Wings were locked into 31st place when the NHL shut down March 12 because of the pandemic. The 2021 season began on a personal and professional high note when Yzerman named Larkin captain, but the Wings struggled and it wasn’t much fun playing without fans in the building. This season has been a balm: Fans have provided energy, and rookies Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider and Alex Nedeljkovic have added a much-needed infusion of talent.

“It’s really brought a joy back for myself, and probably a lot of guys, having younger guys around,” Larkin said. “I can relate to them, I’m not far removed from that period in my life. There have been times I’ve been able to help them, but they’ve definitely helped myself and a lot of older players on our team.”

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Larkin gained Raymond as a linemate in training camp. The two click well, knowing when to hold onto the puck and when to find one another. Larkin had 23 goals and 20 assists after 41 games, and the longest he’s gone without a point is three games.

“There’s zero doubt he’s using one of his best attributes and that’s skating,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “He’s had the puck on his stick, and his shot has gotten better., his accuracy has improved. To me, the biggest difference is that he’s skating more with the puck and, he’s skated to create space for himself.”

Larkin’s speed got him a spot in the fastest skater competition at the 2016 All-Star Game, where Larkin’s time of 13.172 seconds broke Mike Gartner’s record of 13.386. Larkin laughed when asked about competing again this year, when he will be up against the likes of Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (the winner in 2017, ’18 and ’19) and Colorado’s Cale Makar.

“You get a little nervous,” Larkin said. “You don’t want to blow a tire or something. There are a lot fast players and I just hope to put a smooth run together.

“The whole All-Star weekend is a great honor, great thing to be a part of. Just being around those guys and celebrating our game and our league is a special time and it should be a lot of fun.”

The Wings as a whole are having more fun; they aren’t likely to make the playoffs, but at least they are closer to a wild-card spot than to the best odds for the draft lottery.

For Larkin personally, he had a big game in the season opener, scoring a goal and sending a message that he wasn’t going to tolerate cheap shots. Punching an opponent led to a one-game suspension, but in doing so Larkin said he relieved “so much anger” about the neck injury.  Last season he spoke of feeling that his duties as captain meant he should have answers to all of the pandemic-related questions his teammates had; now he knows that the best thing he can do is be the guy who earned the captaincy in the first place.

“Like everything in life, you learn on the fly, you learn as you go,” Larkin said. “It’s a role where you still have to be yourself, and I think what you do on the ice and the kind of person you are in the locker room, is far more important than any pep talk or anything you can do that is just for show. You have to really truly be yourself and be there for the guys, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Contact Helene St. James at 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 AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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