Mike Babcock may be the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Detroit Red Wings fans might be thanking their former bench boss for bringing top prospect Dylan Larkin to the professional game so soon.
After all, were it not for Babcock deciding to leave Detroit, Larkin, 19, may not have left the NCAA to sign his professional deal. Larkin was Detroit’s first round pick in 2014 and it’s clear he’s not planning on playing anywhere but the NHL.
“(The coaching change) is one of the reasons I decided to sign and leave college," Larkin told NHL.com’s Mike Brophy. "There is a new coach and there seems to be some older players who might be on their way out. I think it is a great opportunity for me to learn from them. Growing up in Detroit you hear so much about those guys. I have watched Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk my whole life, so to be in the same room as them would be an incredible experience.”
He has a point about the coaching change, too. Over the past decade, the Red Wings have become notorious for being a difficult place for prospects to crack the lineup. Before getting the chance in the NHL, the younger players in Detroit’s system generally spend some time getting seasoned in the AHL, but Larkin saw the opportunity to get into the NHL at a young age if Babcock was to head elsewhere.
On May 20, Babcock signed his monster eight-year deal with the Maple Leafs. The next day, Larkin had left college to join the professional ranks, officially inking his three-year, entry-level deal on May 21. That seems like more than a simple coincidence, especially considering it was clear Grand Rapids Griffins coach Jeff Blashill would be taking over as Detroit’s new bench boss.
Actually making the lineup and playing a full-time role with the Red Wings would be an incredible thing for Larkin. Not since 1999-00, when a 19-year-old Jiri Fischer played 52 games under Scotty Bowman, has a teenager played more than half a season for the Red Wings. During Babcock’s tenure, no player under 22 played more than half a season and the only 22-year-olds to get a full-time role with the Red Wings were Valtteri Filppula in 2006-07 and Tomas Jurco in 2014-15. For Larkin, no coaching change could have meant at least three years in the AHL.
Regardless of who the coach has been, it’s not often the Red Wings have a teenager in their lineup, but Larkin has made his case. He posted 15 goals and 47 points in 35 NCAA games as a freshman, suited up for six AHL post-season games and participated at the World Championships with Team USA last season.
During his short stint in Grand Rapids, Larkin had the opportunity to play under Blashill and that won’t hurt his chances. That Larkin managed to net three goals, five points and dominate competition likely only stands to help his case.
In a July interview with MLive.com’s Brendan Savage, Blashill was already trumpeting Larkin’s ability and said the young gun could be ready for the jump to the NHL.
"Dylan did a real good job when he stepped in for us in the playoffs," Blashill told Savage. “To step in and have the impact he had…He was good.
"His impact was good. How close is he? He's certainly close. What does that mean come camp? We'll see. Everybody takes different journeys to the get to the NHL.”
For Larkin, that journey could begin as a 19-year-old in a system that is famed for its difficulty to break into. And, rather unexpectedly, it may be thanks to Babcock that the Red Wings have one of the league’s top prospects ready to play as soon as the puck drops on a new season.