Niyo: Dylan Larkin could use a lift to ease Red Wings’ wait in rebuild

Detroit News

It was a quick rejoinder at the end of a long season. A parting shot from a weary captain before a much-needed vacation.

But much like it is with his boss, who once skated in the same circles that Dylan Larkin now finds himself in, there was some weight to what he said.

In the middle of Larkin’s final media session of the spring — he spoke via Zoom from his home in suburban Detroit, where he was recuperating from April 18 core muscle surgery — a local TV reporter took note of the updated bookshelf decorations in the background.

Larkin laughed as he acknowledged the compliment, but then added, “Needs more trophies.”

That’s the goal, obviously. And behind the smile that delivered that line, you could also hear the frustration as Larkin talked about the rut the Red Wings’ rebuild hit this winter. The tumble they took ultimately cost their head coach, Jeff Blashill, his job.

And it left Larkin wondering again just when he’ll be something other than a spectator in May and June as the Stanley Cup playoffs heat up. Larkin got a taste of that juice as a rookie in 2016, but this spring marks the sixth straight season the Wings have missed the postseason, the longest drought for the franchise in nearly a half-century.

So while Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman was preaching patience this week — even as he signaled his own intolerance for this winter’s regression by dismissing Blashill — the player entrusted with that ‘C’ he once wore is understandably anxious to see what’s next.

More: Despite losing, Red Wings’ Lucas Raymond had ‘really fun’ rookie season

A new coach, certainly. A new contract, Larkin hopes. And, presumably, another influx of rookie talent, which is why — after seeing the way Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond performed this season — Larkin insists, “We’re in a better spot today than we were a couple years ago.”

Still, for Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi — two of the longest-tenured current Red Wings — they’re nowhere near where they want to be, even after posting career-best individual seasons offensively in 2021-22.

“I feel like we’ve been having this talk for three years now,” Bertuzzi said this week. “Yeah, it’s very frustrating.”

Larkin, who turns 26 in July, is coming off a bounce-back year that saw him return to point-per-game production (31 goals and 69 points in 71 games) centering the Wings’ top line. The Waterford native still has one season remaining on the five-year, $30.5 million contract he signed with Detroit back in 2018. And he says he’s “pretty confident” he and his agent, Kurt Overhardt, will be able to hammer out an extension this summer.

Bertuzzi, who also has a year left on his deal, sidestepped a similar question about contract talks this week. But the 27-year-old winger, who went to arbitration with the Wings two years ago and then missed most of that 2020-21 season because of a back injury, did reiterate that he wants to stay with the team that drafted him back in 2013.

“Obviously, I want to sign here,” Bertuzzi said. “I love it here.”

And the 30 seconds of the Wings’ season finale at New Jersey proved again just how well-liked Bertuzzi is by his teammates. A frenetic shift that led to Bertuzzi’s empty-net goal — his milestone 30th of the season — had the Wings’ bench jumping for joy.

Still, he remains an intriguing trade possibility for Yzerman, who has to consider that the real core of the Wings’ next Cup contender is only just beginning to arrive in Detroit. Mo Seider and Lucas Raymond are here now, and Simon Edvinsson and Jonatan Berggren should join them next season. Other top prospects like goalie Sebastian Cossa, last year’s first-round draft pick, are still two or three years away, more than likely.

So, while the goal is to return to the playoffs sooner rather than later in Detroit, the GM also has to consider the bigger picture.

“I get asked, ‘Where are you at in the rebuild? What’s the timeline? Are you going to make the playoffs?’” Yzerman said. “I wish I could give you definitive answers. … I would love to be able to stand here and say, ‘This is the exact date, this is when we’re going to be a playoff team, and we’re going to win the Cup this year.’ I’d be a fool and an idiot to say that.”

He is neither, of course. But he is a realist. And saying he should go out and sign a high-priced free agent or two, as I’m about to do right here, is much easier said than done in today’s NHL.

Just take a look at all the would-be UFAs that teams have locked up over the last several months, from Aleksander Barkov (Florida) and Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers) to Tomas Hertl (San Jose). And consider that others likely will follow suit before the free-agent market opens for business on July 13.

“I have this beautiful list of great players that would be a good fit for our organization,” Yzerman said. “Can I get any of those players? I have no idea at this point.”

He has to try, though, for the sake of the new coach he’ll be bringing aboard and for the guy who has been driving the bus for quite a while now. Next season might not be the one that sees Detroit return to the playoffs, but it is a pivotal one just the same.

This team needs to show some dramatic improvements defensively to entertain any serious playoff hopes in the next year or two — the Red Wings allowed a whopping 310 goals this season. And simply changing out Danny DeKeyser for Edvinsson won’t be enough to correct the issues on the blue line. Finding another second-pair vet this summer seems imperative. Possibly a player like the Kings’ Olli Maatta or the Flames’ Nikita Zadorov?

Larkin could use some help up front, too. Especially in the middle, where a legitimate top-six center is needed to help slot the rest of the lines better. Pius Suter proved to be a quality pickup last July, and he’s signed through 2023. But Yzerman needs to aggressively target something better — and ideally bigger — in free agency or via trade.

Maybe a player like Ann Arbor native Andrew Copp, who has had a big impact for the New York Rangers since coming over from Winnipeg at the trade deadline. The Rangers are expected to make a strong push to re-sign Copp, however, so that might not be an option.

Carolina’s Vincent Trocheck could be, if the cap-strapped Hurricanes can’t afford to keep him long-term and Yzerman is willing to sacrifice some of that future cap flexibility he worked hard to create the last few years. Ditto Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust, another Michigan native who would add some spark and scoring on the wing, or Tampa’s Ondrej Palat, one of Yzerman’s early draft steals, just to name a couple more possibilities.

Again, though, the question is whether it makes sense to invest $6 million or more annually for several years when those players’ prime production will come before the Wings are ready to truly contend.

Or as Yzerman put it the other day, “The danger becomes you start to get a little impatient, desperate — not sure what the right word is — then you do something stupid. … Any time I’ve tried to force a trade, force a signing, I’ve regretted it.”

Wasting some of Larkin’s prime also would be regrettable, though, so maybe the real question here is how close Yzerman thinks the Red Wings are to getting back to where they were for most of his playing career in Detroit. The place Larkin is in a hurry to find.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be in this position forever, or for much longer, certainly,” Larkin said. “So there is frustration. But I do understand what Steve is trying to do, and what the end goal is, and I think that’s to win the Stanley Cup for our fans and for the city of Detroit. So I believe in that, and I’m excited for the future.”

But the sooner it gets here, the better he’ll feel about carrying the mantle — and eventually filling it.

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