In Yzerman, Larkin has the best mentor to lead Wings out of despair
As captain, a young Steve Yzerman, left, led the Wings back to the Stanley Cup. Can Dylan Larkin, the likely next captain, find the same path?
A few months after Steve Yzerman was hired as the Red Wings’ general manager, the smart money says that Dylan Larkin will become Detroit’s captain.
While the two events have nothing to do with each other – it has been long clear that Larkin, 22, is the team’s best player and Detroit’s on-ice leader – it seems fitting that a talented, driven, dynamic and gritty center will once again wear the “C” for the Red Wings when the man who did that in a legendary and Hall-of-Fame manner for 20 seasons is the organization’s GM.
While no one is suggesting that Larkin will ever match Yzerman’s accomplishments – 692 goals, a franchise-record 1,063 assists, 1,755 points, three Stanley Cups and the longest-serving captain in NHL history – the Waterford native does stir memories of No. 19, though this is a far different era than the 1980s when Yzerman began his career.
Early in their careers, both were seen as the player to lead the Wings out of the doldrums and into the promised land of winning the Stanley Cup – as Yzerman eventually did, almost 14 years after his first NHL game.
He was made the Red Wings’ captain just before the beginning of the 1986-87 campaign by new coach Jacques Demers when Yzerman was 21 and in his fourth season.
If Larkin becomes the captain in the fall, he will be 23 and starting his fifth season.
One key difference between Yzerman and Larkin is that Yzerman was still a shy kid who was uncomfortable in the spotlight. Before he became captain, Yzerman had not really shown an aptitude for leadership, with the exception of the example he set with his drive and work ethic. His only other qualifications to wear the “C” was that he was the Wings’ best player and the embodiment of hope for the future, and that was enough for Demers.
But it still took Yzerman a few years before he was comfortable in the leadership role and good at it.
And while Larkin certainly does not seek out the spotlight with anything other than his play, he is far more comfortable when that light shines on him. He seems totally comfortable being a team leader or THE team leader.
“I do feel in my fourth year that I have a voice in here (the locker room),” Larkin told the Detroit Free Press this past season. “I’ve learned from some of the best.”
But, like Yzerman, his dominant trait for leadership is his work ethic.
“The No. 1 thing is (that) his inner drive is off the charts,” Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said. “He’s got the inner drive that the great players have. He wants to be great and he wants us to win.
“He’s self-accountable – there are times he gets frustrated, there are times he looks back and he knows he has to be better. So he is self-accountable and he’s got great inner drive. Those are great qualities to have as a leader.”
An example of that drive is his goal total last season.
In 2017-18, Larkin had a then-career high 63 points as he became an effective center in all three zones. But he only scored 16 total goals. That compared to 23 and 19 respectively in his first two seasons.
He heard from a few sources that maybe his goal-scoring ability was limited.
“Through contract negotiating and the end of the last couple years, people said I wasn’t a goal scorer,” Larkin said in March after scoring his 29th and 30th goals against Buffalo. “I set a goal before every season to try and get to 30 … It does feel pretty good that hard work pays off, to prove to people that I could be a goal scorer in this league.”
He finished the season with 32 goals and a career-high 73 points, leading the Wings in both categories.
As far as their playing styles are concerned, Yzerman was by far a more skilled offensive player compared to the other players of his era than Larkin compared to his peers of today.
From roughly 1988 to 1993, Yzerman, the fourth pick of the 1983 NHL draft, would have been the league’s best center if not for the presence of ultra-all-time greats Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Larkin, the 15th overall pick in 2014, will ultimately be an outstanding player and maybe a top five center in the NHL, but I don’t think he will ever rank as high as No. 3.
So far in Larkin’s career, fellow young centers Connor McDavid, Leon Draisatl, Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov, Jack Eichel, Brayden Point, Mark Scheifele and Sean Monahan have all out-played and out-produced him overall. While Larkin will continue to improve, there is no reason to think that any six of the above eight players will have their development slowed enough for Larkin to surpass them.
But Larkin is a better, stronger and faster skater among his peers than Yzerman was among his.
Larkin already has become an effective two-way center – a necessity for a star pivot in this day and age. On the other hand, Yzerman, who played the first 10 years of his NHL career in an era where offense dominated and back-checking was an afterthought until the playoffs, did not become a two-way center until the 1995 lockout season. That’s when Scotty Bowman had taken over as the team’s coach and demanded that Yzerman change his game.
Had Yzerman come along today, he would have had to master the defensive side of the game earlier in his career, as Larkin has. Yzerman also would not have had as many goals and assists as he had. But he would have still had more points that Larkin.
Larkin would have also scored more points in the free-wheeling 1980s and early ’90s that he has, but not as many as Yzerman actually did.
Yzerman finally skated around the Joe Louis Arena Ice with the Stanley Cup in 1997. Will Larkin ever get his chance to hold the Cup high?
He has the perfect general manager to help him realize that dream.