Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Dylan Larkin had a poster of Henrik Zetterberg on his bedroom wall. And now that he’s become the face of the Detroit Red Wings’ youth movement, he’s basically replacing the hero he dreamed of one day becoming.
The metaphorical torch was passed from Zetterberg to Larkin when the former announced his retirement at the beginning of this season. Larkin may never be able to grow the top-level kind of beard Zetterberg has, but the similarities between the two are remarkable. The 200-foot game, the leadership, the commitment and the continual desire to improve and win have Larkin perfectly prepared to become ‘Henrik Zetterberg 2.0’.
When Larkin broke in with the Red Wings three years ago, it represented a radical departure in philosophy for the franchise and GM Ken Holland. It had been 25 years since the Red Wings had regularly used a teenager in their lineup when Larkin broke in for the 2015-16 season. Now he’s four years into his career with the security of a five-year deal worth $6.1 million per year that’s probably going to look very, very team-friendly by the time it expires. The Red Wings are mucking it out trying to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, which is much better than most of the pundits thought. And much of that is due to Larkin, who spent the first two years of his career on the wing, but is now firmly ensconced as a center and is producing at close to a point-per-game clip.
“It’s looking upwards,” Larkin said. “The way we’re playing right now, I think we’ve shocked a lot of people. A lot of people thought we were going to be bottom three or last in the league, but we’re battling right now and we’re exciting to watch. We have a lot of good, young players coming up who are exciting a lot of people in Detroit.”
Much of that has to do with the 22-year-old Larkin, who will almost certainly be the next captain of this team. When Zetterberg retired, the Red Wings elected to go with Niklas Kronwall and Justin Abdelkader serving as alternates and Larkin and Frans Nielsen alternating wearing the ‘A’. It was a good move by the Red Wings. Sure, Steve Yzerman was captain when he was 21, but there was no sense in rushing Larkin into the role. But the self-described rink rat who will leave no stone unturned in his quest to get better is very well suited for the role in the long term.
And as great as it is to have promising young players, they sometimes aren’t ready for NHL roles. We’ve seen that with Filip Zadina, who is apprenticing with the Red Wings farm team and will be off to the World Junior Championship. Despite being the sixth overall pick, there has been no temptation to rush him into the lineup. So Larkin, along with the likes of defenseman Dennis Cholowski and center Michael Rasmussen, are giving Red Wings fans a glimpse of what they can expect in the future while contributing in the present.
“For me personally, I’m playing a lot of minutes and I’m playing in a lot of situations and I feel like I’m trying to give this team a chance to win every night,” Larkin said. “With the second contract, I’ve got some good stability there. I want to get this thing back on track and start winning games.”
Larkin is second only to defenseman Mike Green in average time on ice per game. He’s up to 21:34 per game, almost two minutes more per game than last season and sixth among centers in the NHL behind only Aleksander Barkov, Connor McDavid, Mark Scheifele, Anze Kopitar and Nathan MacKinnon. That’s pretty heady stuff. He’s firmly entrenched as the team’s No. 1 center and is logging minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill. And one area of the game where he has really excelled is in faceoffs. Coming into this season, he had never won 50 percent of his draws, but is now sporting a 56.1 percent success rate, including 73.7 percent shorthanded.
As anyone associated with the Red Wings about Larkin and they’ll talk about his “engine”. It never stops. He thrives on competition and has plenty of it with all the great young players in the league.
“I’m a competitive guy and I love matching up against some of my buddies like Auston (Matthews) and Jack (Eichel),” Larkin said. “We’re pretty lucky, maybe we’re not lucky, that we’re in the same division, but it’s fun to see these guys I grew up playing with and trying to be competitive with them.”