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.

Game 19: Red Wings-Winnipeg Enotes

The Red Wings have the margin for error of a heart surgeon these days, when it comes to games played at Joe Louis Arena.

They’ve lost games at JLA while giving up tons of shots. They’v lost games because of an inept power play. They’ve lost games because of turnovers.

Well, they lost again at home on Tuesday night, 3-2 to the Winnipeg Jets in a shootout, and it hardly seems fair.

The Red Wings yielded just 23 shots on goal, while firing 45 at Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec. They scored two power play goals. And they cut down on the turnovers.

Yet the Red Wings have now gone six straight games at the Joe without a win. Andrew Ladd, who has a habit of scoring big goals, tallied the eventual game-winner for the second game in a row for the Jets in a shootout.

Despite doing better in the categories mentioned above, there’s still one area that didn’t improve on Tuesday—coaxing anything, offensively, from any player not named Zetterberg or Datsyuk.

Pavel Datsyuk scored both Red Wings goals, one from a bullet, cross-ice pace from Henrik Zetterberg that Datsyuk fired into a half open net to tie the game, 1-1.

But once again, the Red Wings are a one-trick pony on offense. The lack of secondary scoring is killing them. Nobody else can put the puck in the net other than the EuroTwins.

The Red Wings (9-5-5) played one of their best home games of the season yet still didn’t come away with two points. This is a time for belief, faith and patience. The season is too young to panic that those extra points at home aren’t coming.

At least this wasn’t a contest where the Red Wings had more turnovers than a bakery. The Jets mustered just 19 SOG in regulation. Yet it was Detroit that played catch-up all night; the Jets were never behind in the only column that mattered—that being on the scoreboard.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s getting tiresome watching the visitors in white shirts celebrate on JLA ice, isn’t it?

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: The Jets’ two goals in regulation were both the result of pretty passing and deadly accurate shots. Ladd continues to vex the Red Wings, even as a member of the Jets, after doing so to Detroit as a Chicago Blackhawk. This is a game the Red Wings can maybe build on, however, despite the result. The Wings will win far more games than they’ll lose if they play the way they did on Tuesday.