"It's Easy Math" For Dylan Larkin To Become Great

In year one without Zetterberg, the Red Wings will need it.

Will Burchfield
September 20, 2018 - 2:47 pm

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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As far as Jeff Blashill's concerned, Dylan Larkin won't transform from a good NHL player to a great one. Not at this point, no way. That'd be selling Larkin's starting point short. 

"I'd argue he's a really good player, so, to me, he's already in between," Blashill said. 

It was just a year ago that Larkin was looking to re-establish himself on the lesser end of this spectrum. He stormed onto the scene as a rookie in 2015-16, leading the Red Wings with 23 goals, then took a significant step back in 2016-17. At least, that's what the production said. 

But while his stats dipped in his second season, Larkin started to become a more well-rounded player. He moved from wing to center. He took on more defensive responsibilities. He was charged with making his linemates better, rather than reaping the rewards of playing on Henrik Zetterberg's wing. It all started to click toward the end of the season, and then Larkin's offensive game caught a second wind. 

A year later, he picked up where he left off. 

Larkin was hands down the Red Wings best player last season, taking that title at just the right time from Zetterberg. He led the team in points with 63, about double what he recorded the season prior, and saw his ice time spike by almost four minutes per game. In fact, with 19:51 per game, Larkin became the first Red Wings player other than Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk to lead the team's forwards in ice time since 2002-03. 

Two years after finishing fifth for Rookie of the Year as a one-way, goal-scoring winger, Larkin asserted himself as a two-way, 200-foot center. Good? In today's NHL, where no commodity is more valuable than a No. 1 center, that's much closer to great. 

"I think when you compete as hard as he does it drives the train of your team to a level that very few players in this league do," Blashill said. "I think the completeness of his game has come to a level where I’d argue he’s much better than just a good player."

The challenge facing Larkin now, especially in the wake of Zetterberg's retirement, is taking the next step. How does he become great? In Blashill's mind, the answer is simple. 

"To take that step to be in that elite level of guys, he's going to have to get more points. And I think the points are there to be had on the power play. He had very few last year," said Blashill. 

This isn't lost on Larkin. At the end of last season, as the Wings cleaned out their lockers after missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, Larkin was asked where he could improve. He pointed directly to the power play. He had just one goal and eight points on the man advantage in 2016-17, despite holding down a spot on one of the top two units throughout the year. 

"It's not enough," he said of his production. "I need to be better."

The gap between Larkin's numbers on the power play and at even strength was jarring. 283 NHL players recorded at least 100 minutes of power play time last season. Larkin finished 245th in points per 60 minutes. Meanwhile, of the 107 players who recorded at least 1,200 minutes at five-on-five, Larkin ranked sixth -- sixth -- in the same category.

Think about it, Blashill said. If Larkin can repeat his production at five-on-five and on the penalty kill, where he chipped in two shorthanded goals, and boost his power play production to a league-average level, he'll be well within the territory of great. And he'll be knocking on the door of elite. 

"It’s easy math for him to take the next step," Blashill said. 

Larkin's 63 points last season were tied for 58th in the NHL. (His 45 points at five-on-five ranked 17th -- tied with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Auston Matthews and MVP-winner Taylor Hall.)

"All you do is increase that by 10 on the power play, and all of a sudden you’re at 72, 73," Blashill said. "There’s not a lot of forwards in the league that have that many points -- especially centers, especially good, two-way centers." 

If there's a level of production that defines a player as great, Blashill wouldn't say. But for the sake of discussion, let's put the threshold at 75 points.

30 forwards last season reached that mark. 17 of them were centers. How many of them qualify as "good, two-way centers?" Well, at the risk of oversimplifying things, seven of those centers finished in the top-20 of voting for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward: Kopitar, Claude Giroux, Sidney Crosby, William Karlsson, Aleksander Barkov, Sean Couturier and Jonathan Marchessault. And just four of those centers -- Kopitar, Giroux, Barkov and Couturier -- started the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone. 

Larkin meets the final qualification; he started 51.5 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone. He didn't garner any Selke votes, but his game is no doubt headed in that direction. Then it's just a matter of points. As Larkin enters his fourth NHL season, it's fair to say greatness is within his reach. Not historic, permanent greatness, but game-to-game greatness, the kind of greatness that defines a franchise cornerstone. 

The balancing act for Larkin, the same one that Zetterberg mastered for years, will be increasing his offensive numbers without slipping at the other end of the ice. 

"Any time you start talking about points, it can’t be at the sacrifice of your defensive game," Blashill said. "You do that, you’ll never be a winning-type hockey player -- and Larks is driven to win more than anything else. When you’re driven to win you have to make sure you’re playing from both sides of the puck, and then as he continues to increase the production on the power play I just think naturally his point production goes up." 

It's a big season for Larkin. He just signed a five-year, $30.5 million extension. Zetterberg is gone. There's a changing of the guard in Detroit's organization, and Larkin's watch is about to begin. For the first time in his career, there's a good chance the 22-year-old won't be the youngest player on the Wings. 18-year-old Filip Zadina is coming. 19-year-old Michael Rasmussen is too. 20-year-olds Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski are making a push on the blue line. 

When they arrive, they'll be looking at Larkin, hoping to follow the same path from green to great. Larkin smiled at the thought of this, at the idea of being an elder statesman of sorts, and said, "That’s why I’m growing out this beard."