The Detroit Red Wings made the selection of Dylan Larkin as team captain on January 13, 2021; he was a natural selection for the role in many ways. He was the team’s leading scorer and grew up in the area, so he understands what it means to wear the Winged Wheel. After completing his first full season as the official leader of the franchise, it’s time to take a look at how Larkin has fared in this role and how he compares to a previous captain’s first season who is now running the franchise and understands exactly what Larkin is going through.
What it Means to be a Captain in the NHL
Being a team captain of an NHL franchise is a very significant responsibility. The on-ice role is easily defined by rights awarded to the team captain in the NHL rule book. Rule 6.1 states, “One Captain shall be appointed by each team, and he alone shall have the privilege of discussing with the referee any questions relating to the interpretation of rules which may arise during the progress of a game. He shall wear the letter “C,” approximately three inches in height and in contrasting color, in a conspicuous position on the front of his sweater.”
The other aspects of the position are not so easily defined. Typically, the team captain handles the leadership on the ice by example and manages the different personalities in the locker room to keep everyone working towards winning, which should be every team’s ultimate goal. The captain is seen as the team leader, counted on to be accountable to the media and in most cases, the public face of the franchise as well as a link between the coach and players. Right or wrong, the captain will face the brunt of the criticism when teams are performing poorly and receive much of the glory and accolades when the team has success and hoists the Stanley Cup.
Larkin Named Team’s 37th Captain
Drafted by the Red Wings with the 15th selection in the 2014 draft out of the University of Michigan, it had all of the feelings of a hometown hero in the making. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Larkin grew up as a Red Wings fan, and when selected to be a team captain on January 13, 2021, he understood its significance, as he was named the 37th team captain in franchise history.
In his first full season as captain, Larkin proved he was ready for the task. He performed very well, scoring 31 goals and 69 points in 71 games with .97 PPG before a core muscle surgery ended his season. (from: ‘Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin out for rest of season after undergoing core muscle surgery,’ The Athletic, April 18, 2022). It was an important bounce-back season for Larkin after two sub-par seasons where he produced 19 goals and 34 assists in 71 games, .75 PPG in 2019-20, and just nine goals and 14 assists in 44 games played in 2020-21, which was only .52 PPG.
Yzerman Named Youngest Captain in Franchise History
Yzerman broke into the league and had a fantastic rookie season, scoring 39 goals and 87 points during the 1982-83 season, coming in second in voting for the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year to Tom Barrasso. After posting a 30-goal season in his second year as a pro, Yzerman suffered a broken collarbone during his third season that limited him to 59 games. Most people forget that Yzerman wasn’t named captain of the Red Wings until the beginning of his fourth season. At the beginning of the 1986–87 season, he became the youngest player to be named captain of the Red Wings at 21 years old.
During the early portion of his career, Yzerman was overshadowed in the NHL by two of the game’s all-time greats, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. In his first season as captain, the Red Wings finished with a 34-36-10 record, which was good for 78 points in 1986-87 — 38-point improvement over the previous season. They finished second in the Norris Division and ended up losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the Campbell Conference Final.
Becoming a Red Wings Captain During Struggling Times
Team success or lack thereof, at the time each was named captain, is eerily similar. Yzerman entered a franchise that was just purchased by Mike Ilitch in 1982. They were coming out of an era when they were known as the “Dead Wings.” Between the 1970-71 and 1976-77 seasons, the team went through seven coaches and three GMs. They were struggling so much during this time period that new owner Mike Illitch had to give away cars to try and help bring fans back into the building. Prior to Yzerman joining the franchise, they only made the playoffs twice between the years 1967 and 1983.
Currently, the Red Wings are on a streak of six consecutive seasons without making the playoffs. Their last appearance was in 2016, which ironically was Larkin’s rookie season. After a stretch of 25 consecutive playoff appearances that also ended in 2016, a franchise decline was inevitable. At least they’ve been stable under the ownership of the Illitch family and a smooth management transition between former GM Ken Holland to Yzerman.
Help Is on the Way?
Yzerman, as great of a player as he was, needed significant help from others before he was finally able to hoist the Stanley Cup in 1997. He needed contributions from players such as Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, and many others. He changed his game from one of the most dynamic point producers in the 1980s to a true 200-foot defensive-minded player that led the example to everyone else on the team as demanded by coach Scotty Bowman.
Larkin received a glimpse of help this season with the emergence of rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. Jakub Vrana has also emerged as a potential 40-goal threat, and they should soon be joined by other promising rookies led by top defensive prospect Simon Edvinsson, who signed his three-year entry-level contract. Help should also come with a new coach soon after the dismissal of Jeff Blashill, who was the only coach Larkin has played for in his seven seasons in the league; the Red Wings struggled mightily in their own zone with a -82 goal differential this season.
Building a championship roster in the current salary cap environment of the NHL is a daunting challenge. Fortunately, Yzerman has successfully accomplished this task in the past during his stint as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are currently the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. Larkin is fortunate at the age of 25 to still have the prime of his career ahead of him and a GM who literally has been in his “skates.
Both Yzerman and Larkin, as players and as captains, have dealt with individual success as point producers and have struggled with injuries while dealing with the pressures of being the face of one of the storied franchises in the NHL. Perhaps one day, their similar experiences and passion for success will drive them towards playoff success again in Detroit and another championship celebration one day in the motor city.
Rob Klein grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan playing pond hockey every winter, and watching Hockey Night in Canada on CBC every Saturday. Being able to finally watch his Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup in 1997 was his finest NHL moment. As a fan of the NHL for over 40 years he has been able to follow many great teams and appreciate the history of this great game as well as the remarkable talent that is playing today.