Dylan Larkin: The Red Wings’ best player, by default (for now)

May 4, 2016

Just seven months ago, the question was, should Dylan Larkin be included in the Red Wings’ opening night roster, or should he be sent to Grand Rapids for some more seasoning?

Today, we ask, when can he take over as being the team’s most elite player?

Let’s hope ASAP is among the choices.

It’s not a stretch to say that Larkin, the 19 year-old whirling dervish, is the team’s best player. Certainly he’s the most exciting.

It’s not a stretch because the ex-elite players on the Red Wings—Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk—are no longer that. Datsyuk, in fact, may no longer be a Red Wing at all, if he follows through on his threat to move back to Russia to play hockey next fall.

Zetterberg is still a good player, but he’s not elite. He has morphed into a second or third line guy—something usually not befitting a team captain, though I doubt he’d be demoted.

It’s not a stretch to suggest Larkin is no. 1 because the other forwards haven’t taken that next step from good to very good, let alone from very good to elite.

Justin Abdelkader, likely your next Red Wings captain, isn’t elite, though right now he might be the team’s most complete player—which isn’t the same as being elite.

It’s not hard to imagine the Red Wings as being Larkin’s team in the near future, even without the “C” on his sweater.

Larkin will soon be the kind of player that will be worth the price of admission. Right now, he’s at the price of a couple of beers, and trending upward. He had a shaky second half, but that wasn’t shocking. He still finished with 23 goals and 22 assists and led the team in plus/minus with a plus-11. Only one other Red Wing scored as many as 20 goals (Tomas Tatar, 21).

When the Red Wings move into shiny new Little Caesars Arena (I know, I know) in October of 2017, it would be nice to have a centerpiece on the roster. It would be even better to have a team capable of making a deep playoff run, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Because of a myriad of reasons, Larkin is now being asked, at least indirectly and not yet publicly, to be the Red Wings’ best player every night. He has no choice, because there’s no one else capable.

It’s so, so reminiscent of no. 19.

Stevie Yzerman, at age 19, was entering his second season with the Red Wings, and it wasn’t much longer after that, that Yzerman was anointed as being the team’s best player. At first it was by default, but then it became a no-brainer.

Right now, Larkin is the Red Wings’ best player, by default. Soon there won’t be anything defaulting about it.

This will be Larkin’s team, and the fortunes of it will turn as he turns. That’s not opinion.

MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 17: Dylan Larkin #71of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on October 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Larkin’s first half was better than his second, but both halves were better than just about everyone else’s.

 

The task now for GM Ken Holland and his scouting staff—both amateur and pro—is to surround Larkin with the supporting cast the kid needs to lessen his burden.

The Red Wings’ core should be reduced to Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Abdelkader, Zetterberg (for now), Anthony Mantha, goalie Petr Mrazek and defensemen Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser.

Everyone else should be quite touchable, in trades and in cuts, if need be.

That’s a small core, granted, but I don’t see any other way to go about returning the Red Wings to their glory days.

In the meanwhile, Holland should try trades, an occasional low-profile free agent signing when money allows (no more big contracts for awhile) and continue to go to the draft well, which has served the team fairly decently in recent years.

It’s time now to stop waiting on the likes of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan et al to break through as top end players. Trade ’em all, if you can.

Keep the aforementioned core and work from there.

As for Larkin, this plan clearly broadens the young man’s shoulders by proxy, but all Stanley Cup-worthy teams have superstars. The Red Wings are not going to claw their way to the chalice with second tier forwards and grinders and a mediocre blue line corps. The league’s playoffs may sometimes be quirky and unpredictable, but they’re not set up to allow a superstar-less team to win it all.

Again, that’s not opinion.

It can’t all be Larkin, of course. The defensemen badly need a marquee guy as well. Niklas Kronwall has frayed so much that his nickname ought to be The Shadow. His minus-21 is like a starting pitcher with an ERA of 5.43. Mike Green is OK but hardly elite.

Trading for or developing a true no. 1 defenseman is a necessary part of the rebuild. And yes, I used the r-word. Sue me.

Holland and his fellow front office suits won’t use the r-word, unless that r-word is “reboot” or “reload.”

It’s a rebuild because in a true reboot or reload, you’re keeping a majority of the roster and doing some tweaks, perhaps to replace stars who’ve left via free agency or who have retired.

In a reboot/reload, you have money to burn to go get another elite player.

This is a rebuild because the Red Wings only have a handful of players worth keeping. The others could be trade chips, if packaged the right way. So they still have some value, especially if packaged with prospects.

Whether Holland and company see the roster this way is the question that many Red Wings fans fear doesn’t have the answer that they would prefer.

But what simply can’t be up for debate is the notion that Dylan Larkin, already, before his 20th birthday, is the Red Wings’ best player.

For now, it’s by default.

But it won’t be that way for much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken Wings: Hockeytown needs to brace itself

If the Red Wings were a prize fighter, they’d be Muhammad Ali—in 1980, after his bout with Larry Holmes.

Ali, 38 years old and with nothing left in the tank, was beaten badly by a reluctant Holmes, who didn’t even really want to fight The Greatest to begin with. Holmes knew that Ali was finished. But Ali insisted that he take on the fight, and Holmes used him as a punching bag for 11 rounds, before Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, threw in the towel.

The Red Wings are that boxer who everyone wants to retire, but who doesn’t know when to quit. You know the one—the guy who’s a shell of his past but he just can’t resist lacing on the gloves and giving it another shot.

On Thursday night, the 25th straight trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs ended the way the previous three of the last four did—with the Red Wings blasted out in the first round, having shown up to a gunfight with a penknife.

The forwards couldn’t score, the defensemen were a step slow and, in cruel irony, the one guy on whom you really couldn’t blame anything—goalie Petr Mrazek—channeled Chris Osgood ’94 and made a puck handling blunder late in the decisive Game 5 that cost the Red Wings with less than two minutes to play in the third period.

The fans are the corner men, wanting their team to throw in the towel and get out, while there’s still some dignity left.

This isn’t what the Red Wings have been all about. Their playoff appearances used to strike fear in opponents. Now all they do is elicit sympathy.

Kind of like Larry Holmes’ for Muhammad Ali.

The glory days of Red Wings hockey are over, for now, and the players who remain from the 2008 Cup team are finished, for all intents and purposes.

The so-called next wave of Red Wings after Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have proven to be either overvalued or have underperformed, or both. Regardless, there’s not a Z or a Pavs among the group of Nyquist, Tatar, Sheahan, et al.

Former coach Mike Babcock openly asked the question shortly after the Red Wings were eliminated by Tampa Bay in 2015. He wondered where the next Datsyuk was coming from.

A few weeks later, Babs absconded to Toronto, where expectations are low and where the roster is being built, not held together with baling wire.

There’s a gem in young Dylan Larkin, and there may be another in big Anthony Mantha, who looks like a basketball swingman on skates.

But the defense, which misses Nick Lidstrom oh, so badly, is nowhere near Cup-worthy.

The goalie situation looks to be in flux, yet again. Or, at the very least, the Red Wings have a decision to make.

The coach just finished his rookie season and suffice it to say that he suffered through growing pains as well.

I’ve been critical of GM Kenny Holland in recent weeks. It hasn’t been subtle.

Just before the trading deadline, I beseeched Holland—who’s finishing his 20th season as Red Wings general manager—to make a bold move of some sort. Shuffle the deck. Literally, a trade for trade’s sake.

Didn’t happen, not that I expected that it would.

Then, as the season wound down and making the playoffs was again in peril, I again took Holland to task, bemoaning his lack of boldness and wondering if the Red Wings front office had turned from stable to stale.

Nothing that happened in the team’s five-game playoff “run” turned me into a liar.

I’m not boasting—I’m being factual.

So what to do?

The team will be moving into a new arena in 2017. The last time the Red Wings did that, in 1979, they were a horribly-run hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun.

But Joe Louis Arena was just that—an arena. The Red Wings’ new stomping grounds will be much more than a hockey barn. It’s designed to be a year-round attraction, filled with shops, restaurants and other amenities.

Make no mistake, though. The Red Wings will still be the crown jewel of the new campus. So the last thing team officials want is for the crown jewel to be an atrocity soiling the campus’ lapel.

Unfortunately, the Red Wings’ move into their new digs might coincide with the team being in the midst of a rebuild that could mean no spring hockey for a year or two.

The new arena could open in October of 2017 but host no playoff games until April, 2020.

If that thought doesn’t send chills down the spines of the team’s brass, then nothing will.

Despite the fans’ frustration and their calls for a return to Detroit of Stevie Yzerman, I don’t see Mike Ilitch pulling the plug on Ken Holland. Although, it wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world if that happened.

Ilitch has his Stanley Cups. What he doesn’t have, is his World Series ring. And you can’t tell me that it’s a coincidence that the Tigers seem to garner more of the owner’s attention than the Red Wings, when that’s the case.

Holland represents stability to the owner. He’s that old shoe—or skate. For now.

But with the new arena opening a year from October, losing the extra income from having no playoff dates isn’t going to go over well in the owner’s suite.

Kenny Holland and his lieutenants—notably chief of the pro scouts, Mark Howe—have painted the franchise into a corner, so to speak. They’re crippled by some bad salaries and Datsyuk’s uncertain future. They know their needs but may not be able to address them right away.

 

It’s the worst place to be if you’re a pro sports franchise—in the middle of the pack.

Ilitch likely won’t fire Holland and he won’t make a play for Yzerman to leave the year-round sunshine of Florida.

But what does it say when two of Holland’s disciples—Yzerman and Dallas GM Jim Nill—have lapped their mentor in a relatively short length of time?

 

The Red Wings need bold, new ideas and fresh faces, and not just on the ice. They need prime time scorers and a stud defenseman. They need to flush the toilet.

The problem isn’t necessarily what the Red Wings need. It’s, how do they go about getting it, if there isn’t a change in upper management’s button downed, loyal-to-a-fault style?

The fans are being asked to believe in a GM who hasn’t exactly had the Midas touch in recent years.

Frankly, the Red Wings need to strip things to a core of Larkin, Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Danny DeKeyser and/or Brendan Smith, Justin Abdelkader (your next captain) and Mrazek, and work from there.

I’m recalling what Babcock said at his opening presser in Toronto last summer, speaking to Maple Leafs fans through the media.

“There’s going to be pain.”

 

Is the Hockeytown fan base prepared for some pain?

Because it’s coming, one way or another.

Red Wings can’t let Abdelkader even sniff free agency

Someone is going to pay.

Next summer, if the Red Wings don’t act accordingly, some NHL team is going to back a Brinks truck up to Justin Abdelkader’s driveway and load bags of money onto a dolly and wheel it inside his home.

If the Red Wings don’t break out Mike Ilitch’s checkbook and write a fat one, Abdelkader will be playing in a different burg when the 2016-17 season starts.

In the world of ice hockey at the NHL level, the next best thing to owning all your own teeth is to be in the prime of your career, coming off a fantastic season and entering the last year of your contract, seeing free agency looming on the horizon.

We’re talking unrestricted free agency—none of this pretend free agency where your employer can match offers without you having any say in the matter.

Abdelkader, the Red Wings’ Michigan-reared power forward, is 28 years old. His type of player is one that’s adored and coveted in the league—a big man who isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty, who can pop some pucks into the net and who won’t back down.

Abdelkader, currently in his prime, has a chance to be the closest thing the Red Wings have had to Brendan Shanahan since, well, the Red Wings had Brendan Shanahan.

Shanny’s game was a modern day version of Gordie Howe’s, where a goal, an assist and a scrap was a night at the office.

Or think Joey Kocur, who was one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen play in the NHL. Kocur never lost a battle for the puck in the corner. Ever.

Abdelkader is signed through June 30, 2016. After that, when midnight strikes, it will be a league free-for-all to acquire the Michigan State grad and Muskegon native’s services.

Unless the Red Wings step in and shanghai Abdelkader to a long-term contract extension.

This is no joke. The Red Wings can’t let Abdelkader go. There really isn’t anyone else on the roster who can, right now, step in and do what Abdelkader does for 17 minutes (not including time in the penalty box) on a nightly basis.

We all knew that Abdelkader was scrappy and pugnacious and relentless, especially along the boards, which is the slop to his pig.

But then, last season, no. 8 broke out another aspect of his game—that of consistent scorer.

It kind of came out of nowhere, not that Abdelkader hadn’t shown a bit of a scoring touch previously. He just hadn’t done it throughout the course of an 82-game season, like he did in 2014-15.

Last season, Abdelkader took his own personal record book and tore it up with his bare, calloused hands.

He set record highs in every offensive category you can think of: goals (23); assists (21); points (44); power play goals (8); shots on goal (154); scoring percentage (14.9); game-winning goals (5); and average time on ice (17:55). He even set a career high in penalty minutes, with 72. He ran the statistical table at Hockey-Reference.com.

So what does Abdelkader do NOW?

He is saying all the right things that a professional athlete should say when he knows that the dollars will be rolling in soon, from somewhere.

The comments were made to the Detroit News, and they were pretty much boilerplate.

“You try to not to think about (free agency) too much because then it starts affecting your game,” Abdelkader told the News’ Ted Kulfan. “You just go out and do your best to make a case for yourself. All you can do is take care of yourself and let the business side take care of itself.”

Yadda, yadda.

It’s pretty much true, of course, if not Earth-shattering.

But anyone can have a great year when they’re not a pending free agent. The trick is to maintain the higher standard that you set, when you know there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the upcoming season.

So in that respect, what Abdelkader said about not letting free agency affect your game, is dead-on accurate. After last season, what we expect from him is different. It’s no longer acceptable to return to the old days of grit and 10 goals.

The Red Wings aren’t oblivious. They know how much they need Abdelkader wearing the Winged Wheel for years to come. But Darren Helm, another vital asset, is unrestricted next summer as well. And several other younger players will be restricted free agents.

In the salary cap world, some hard decisions and some fancy financial footwork await GM Kenny Holland.

But first and foremost must be Abdelkader’s future.

For the player’s part, he must perform. No question. But the Red Wings would be wise to lock Abdelkader up ASAP, rather than wait for the whole season to play out and take their chances.

The Red Wings don’t want their own Ndamukong Suh or Max Scherzer to contend with.

So it’s fair to say that Abdelkader will, in fact, be rewarded primarily for what he did last season, with the Red Wings putting their faith (and cash) in him to be a top-line forward for the next five-to-seven years.

This is the way pro sports works when it comes to free agency: you’re mainly paid for what you’ve already done, as opposed to what is expected out of you several years hence. This makes for some oddball contracts that will haunt teams down the line, but there you have it.

Pay up, because if you don’t, someone else will.

There are, I would say, 29 other teams in the NHL who would be delighted to see Justin Abdelkader pull on their sweater every night. This is an All-Star in the making, and truth be told, possibly a future captain.

Abdelkader knows it. He can see it. He can taste it. But this might be his most challenging year, upcoming, because of what lies ahead. It will be 82 games and six straight months of Christmas Eves, trying to get to sleep knowing what will be under the tree the next morning.

“Obviously you want to stay (in Detroit) but you also know it’s a business,” Abdelkader said. “You just don’t know (what’ll happen). I’m just going to focus on having another good year and we’ll see what happens.”

The Red Wings shouldn’t let this thing get anywhere near the realm of suspenseful.

Abdelkader: Hard to Say, Hard to Play (Against)

He played his college hockey at Michigan State, which is like saying an actor studied under Strasberg.

They manufacture NHL players in East Lansing; been doing so for years. The university may as well stamp each skater with a serial number.

It was the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. Justin Abdelkader was 22 and had one of those funny last names that took the folks around Detroit a little bit to pronounce without tying their tongues in knots. Kind of like Yzerman, which was actually butchered more than you care to know when the 18-year-old joined the Red Wings in 1983.

All we knew of Abdelkader at the time was that he had played at MSU, which was all we really needed to know. It was like in the heyday of Michigan football—if you weren’t familiar with an offensive lineman but then found out he played on the O-line in Ann Arbor, automatically the guy reaped all benefits of doubt.

Abdelkader, a left wing wearing no. 8—the sweater of Igor Larionov from the Yzerman-Cup days—was suddenly in the Red Wings’ playoff lineup in 2009, despite playing just two regular season games with the team.

Justin WHO?

A little research turned up more on the player the guys in the dressing room called “Abby.”

He scored 24 goals with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins in 76 games. OK fine. But he also amassed 102 penalty minutes, which is what really got him to Detroit in time for the postseason in 2009.

The Red Wings, since they started winning Stanley Cups again in 1997, have been more about finesse than grit. They would bring in a goon now and again (think Brad May and Aaron Downey) but ultimately those types wouldn’t stick to the roster.

But it wasn’t fighting that was missing; it was the hard-nosed guy who would go into the corners and not come out unless he had the puck or a bloody nose. Both was even better.

Abby was that guy, though he was fresh from Grand Rapids and just a couple years removed from the CCHA.

It’s not atypical in hockey to barely play in the regular season then be thrust into the playoffs as a regular. Look no further than Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who appeared in just six games for the 1970-71 Canadiens before leading them to the Stanley Cup in the spring.

In fact, Dryden won the Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1972.

So here came Abdelkader in 2009 and before his name could roll off our tongues cleanly, he had scored two goals in the Finals against Pittsburgh, in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit. If you believe in numerology, Abdelkader scored in the third period of each game—at the 2:46 mark in Game 1 and at 2:47 in Game 2.

Today, Abdelkader is 27 (he’ll be 28 in February) and he’s no longer a raw rookie—he’s one of the Red Wings’ young veterans who can do a little bit of everything. And he’s still not afraid to get his nose bloodied battling for a loose puck. He just likes to battle, period.

Abdelkader plays hockey every night like he woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. He’s not a goon or even an enforcer, but he’s always up for some extracurricular activities. He’s one of the few Red Wings who seems to like it when there’s pushing and shoving after the whistle. At 6’1″ and 219 pounds, Abby’s not a runt, but he plays like a small dog that won’t let go of your pant leg.

That’s all well and good but this season Abdelkader has added another dimension to his game—that of goal scorer.

In his first 14 games, Abdelkader has scored five goals to go along with five assists. It’s a small sample size, but that extrapolates to about 29 goals and 29 assists. To compare, Abdelkader’s career high for points in a season is 28, set last year. His career high in goals is 10, done twice (the past two seasons).

On the current Red Wings roster, Abdelkader is a rarity: he’s not ancient, or a kid. I know it seems like every Red Wing either still has the scent of Grand Rapids on him or Ben Gay. But Abdelkader is that tweener—the player who is still young enough to have his legs but not so old that his career clock is ticking.

Frankly, it’s a welcome change of pace.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Abdelkader wears an “A” for alternate captain on his sweater soon, maybe even this season if one of the regular As—Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and sometimes Johan Franzen—goes down with injury.

But it’s going to happen, sooner or later.

And if Abdelkader keeps putting pucks in the net with the same frequency as he has so far this season, well…Henrik Zetterberg isn’t getting any younger, if you know what I mean.

The maturation of Abdelkader into a team leader is a storyline that’s flown under the radar with the media types in town. The press is enamored with the Griffins-turned-Red Wings and with the continued magic of Pavel Datsyuk. They like to talk to coach Mike Babcock because of his candidness.

Yet the emergence of Abdelkader as a young veteran who the kids can emulate, and who just might be the team’s next captain, gets lost in the shuffle.

But that’s OK; they can’t ignore Abby forever.

Something tells me that he simply won’t allow it.

And I quote…

“I saw Tats (Tatar) creating some havoc in front of the net. I was going to send the puck to the point but there was some commotion in front of the net so I had more time and I saw something there and put it upstairs.”

—Justin Abdelkader, on his eventual GWG in Calgary on Friday night.