The thought first came to me this fall in Traverse City. I fought it at first, because it's easy to get excited about a promising player and extrapolate just how good he could become. But as Dylan Larkin's first NHL season continues to impress, I come back to that rink in Michigan where I watched him weave magic for the Red Wings rookie team in the highly competitive tournament: Dylan Larkin looked like Jonathan Toews.
Larkin had the smarts, the incredible spacial awareness, the offensive skill and most importantly the drive to be a difference-maker. When the Wings rookies needed a boost, Larkin was often the impetus. He went from that tournament to Detroit's main camp, where he impressed enough to make the Wings as a teenager – something that hadn't happened in more than 15 years, since Jiri Fischer pulled the trick in 1999-2000.
And now he's playing on the top line with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader. Though he's a natural center, Larkin is currently on Zetterberg's left wing – but his own faceoff stats are decent in a small sample. What's more important right now is that Larkin is one of Detroit's top scorers without being a defensive liability. In fact, his ability to hunt pucks and stay on the right side of the action allows coach Jeff Blashill to deploy him frequently: in Thursday's 5-1 win over Arizona, only Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk got more ice time – and that includes every member of Detroit's defense corps.
Did the fact Drew Miller and Teemu Pulkkinen got injured boost Larkin's ice time? A fair question. But it's telling that Blashill felt comfortable with his rookie taking on those minutes, rather than other veterans. And yes, plus-minus is an outdated stat – but Larkin still leads the league at plus-17, with names such as Jeff Carter, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin right behind him. So he's doing something right.
Getting back to the Toews comparison, the big question is whether Larkin can follow the same career path. Toews spent two years at the University of North Dakota before bursting on the scene with Chicago in 2007-08. He didn't win the Calder Trophy – it went to Hawks teammate Patrick Kane instead – but Toews was named to an All-Rookie Team that also included Carey Price and Nicklas Backstrom.
Larkin played one year of college at Michigan and his numbers were practically identical to what Toews did as a sophomore in Grand Forks (he entered UND a year early). It's still too early to call this year's Calder race, but Chicago's Artem Panarin is in the driver's seat. Arizona's Max Domi is another strong candidate, but Larkin is right up there too.
Toews put up about .84 points per game as a 19-year-old rookie, while Larkin's pace is slightly less than that at .73. But Toews' squad wasn't a playoff team just yet, while this year's Red Wings are in a good spot: Larkin's crew sits second on the Atlantic Division right now and as we've already established, the kid has been a driver for success.
Naturally, Larkin must sustain his current success to even be in the same conversation as Toews and he is only 26 games into his NHL career. But I've seen the fire and I've seen what he can accomplish. We've already had the office conversation about whether Larkin, who was picked 15th overall in 2014, should have gone first overall that year (Aaron Ekblad is the apple to his orange, since Ekblad is already a very good defenseman for Florida).
With Zetterberg and Datysuk still playing major roles in Detroit, the Red Wings once again have a great succession plan in place. Because we are just seeing the beginning of what Dylan Larkin can mean to Detroit and the NHL as a whole.