It’s going to take more than one player to change the way the Detroit Red Wings do business, but Dylan Larkin is giving Ken Holland and Co. a lot to think about. The next time Detroit drafts a high-end prospect, maybe they’ll think twice before dismissing him to make space for a proven veteran.
That was the modus operandi during Mike Babcock’s decade in Detroit. It’s impossible to know if the former Red Wings bench boss would have kept Larkin around for this season, but the move would have been more or less unprecedented. He liked his players experienced, and wasn’t about thrusting teenagers into important NHL roles. Consider how the Toronto Maple Leafs are handling William Nylander or how Babcock dealt with the likes of Nyquist for evidence.
While most times the patience-is-a-virtue philosophy makes sense — if a player can’t hang then he can’t hang — determining who the exceptions are is important in the cap era. The last three or four teams standing always have this in common. They are getting elite production from players on entry-level or bridge deals. Detroit is looking to take advantage of that this year with Larkin.
It’s well known (and documented) that this isn’t an organization that likes to rush prospects. If anything, players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar spent too much time at the minor league level while options like Dan Cleary continued to maintain jobs in the NHL.
They are both impact players with the Red Wings now, but they had to bide their time with the Grand Rapids Griffins first. Larkin has bypassed this rite de passage as a 19-year-old, and is generally considered the best young player in Detroit since Steve Yzerman in the ’80s. That’s an impossible mantle to carry for any young man, but it will be interesting to see if the Red Wings start to approach their prospects differently now that they’ve smashed this decision clear out of the park.
It’s important to note here that Larkin is a considerable talent. He was deemed NHL ready ahead of the draft due to his two-way play and speed. This isn’t just any ol’ youngster and we’re not calling for fifth-round picks to get long looks at the age of 19. Yet at times it seems like the Red Wings have demoted players just for the sake of doing so.
That’s the Red Wings Way, the line of thinking seemed to go.
There’s no denying that it has worked for the better part of two decades. Detroit is about as consistent as a sports team can be while operating under the salary cap. While it’s important to keep one eye on history, the other should be looking ahead. That’s what Holland and Jeff Blashill did when they kept Larkin this season.
Could they have sent him back to the University of Michigan for his Sophomore year? Absolutely, and he would have crushed his 38-point campaign from a year ago. From a business standpoint, it would have allowed the Red Wings to keep Larkin under control for an extra year since they wouldn’t be burning a year off of his entry-level contract.
They could have even taken it to the extreme and kept Larkin at the University level for another season or two, knowing that he’d be ready to be a star from day one in Detroit if he was brought in at the age of 21 or 22. Right now Larkin is a star in the making, sure. But the Red Wings have had no issues dragging their feet on players like this before.
The Red Wings would have contended for a playoff spot without Larkin too. Holland and Blashill decided to go against that grain though. They kept the teenager on board for the 82-game campaign, and all he’s done is reward them with Calder Trophy-caliber play. He’s third in rookie scoring with 19 points and leads the entire league in the (admittedly antiquated) plus-minus category.
It would have been easy — and arguably more Red Wings-like — to send Larkin some 40-odd miles West to play some more college puck. He could have cracked the roster as a 21-year-old (or maybe even later) like a Nyquist, but Detroit would have been missing out on a handful of quality years. With the NHL becoming a “young man’s game” more and more each year, figuring out which prospects can be leaned on early is paramount to success.
Detroit got this one right. Only time will tell if Larkin’s success has been enough to change the way they play the game.