Recent production by Wings’ top line bodes well for the future
The Red Wings are out of the playoffs and have only one game left in 2018-19. But the future looks promising, especially from the vantage point of Dylan Larkin between Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha.
That line dominated opponents in the six games before Thursday night’s 4-1 loss in Pittsburgh. And even though they were was held pointless in that game, the success of those three bodes well for the team’s future in general and that of Mantha in particular.
The trio combined for 38 points in that six-game winning streak. Mantha (seven goals and seven assists) and Larkin (five goals and six assists) each had points in all six games while Bertuzzi (five goals and eight assists) had a five-game point streak that was snapped on Thursday. That includes four straight games in which Bertuzzi had three points in each game, becoming the first player in franchise history to accomplish that feat.
Having three of the Red Wings’ key young forwards (Larkin is 22, and Bertuzzi and Mantha are both 24) clicking as a unit with that kind of production has been encouraging for management, especially since they did it against top tier teams that are headed for the playoffs – Las Vegas, San Jose, Boston and Pittsburgh (4-1 at Little Caesars Arena on Tuesday) is a good sign.
“It’s huge to have that,” coach Jeff Blashill said of the dominant first line after Tuesday’s win over the Penguins. “If you look around the league, Boston is a great example … of a team that can capitalize on their No. 1 line” – David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand – “and then slot everybody else in.”
Larkin, who leads the team with 32 goals, 41 assists and 73 points, has continued to do what he has done all season: Be the Wings’ best player, hardest worker and team leader who has continually improved while playing a 200-foot game.
That makes the line effective in both the offensive and defensive zones.
“If you have a match line that’s kind of a grinder line, you’re not going to score a ton on that shift,” Blashill said. “But when you have a line like Larkin’s line that can go out and play with the other team’s best, not only shut them down but outscore them, it gives you a great advantage.”
Bertuzzi has combined competitiveness, outstanding hand-eye coordination when it comes to tipping pucks, and hockey sense that has not always been appreciated. Originally he was projected as a third- or fourth-line winger by most – the Red Wings took him with the 58th overall pick of the 2013 NHL Draft after the Central Scouting Bureau had ranked him only the 207th best skater playing in North America.
But he has shown that he can thrive on a top line where he has 21 goals and 47 points – and is plus-10 on a bad team – in his first full season.
“One thing I loved about him was his compete (level),” assistant to the general manager Kris Draper told www.mlive.com about Bertuzzi. “He just seemed to be a competitive kid, and then when you start throwing out projections, you’re hoping he’s going to get stronger, work on his skating, get faster. As he’s gotten older, he’s done all of those.”
It also appears that Larkin’s and Bertuzzi’s work ethic and competitiveness have rubbed off on Mantha, who is the line’s most naturally talented and gifted member.
But the 6-5, 225 right winger – who has a great shot, can make plays, is a speedy skater for his size and has the expected strength of a man with that frame – has been criticized for not being his best night in and night out, not competing or moving his feet enough on a consistent basis and not using his elite wrist shot enough.
At his best, Mantha is a dominant player who has the puck much of the time he is on the ice and who creates scoring chances for himself and teammates while opportunistic when set up for a one-timer.
That has been the case recently as his has brought his season totals to 24 goals – which equals his career high from last season – and 47 points in 66 games.
After a slow start to begin 2018-19, Mantha’s compete level has been more consistent night in and night out. That could be at least partially because of Larkin and Bertuzzi.
They are all good friends and continuing to play on a line with them seems to be the best thing for Mantha. There is a good chance he will continue to feed off his linemates’ intensity.
“They complement each other really well,” Blashill said. “When Mo’s (Mantha) skating the way he’s skating right now, it’s a high-end line. Dylan on a pretty consistent basis is a worker, Bert works. It’s just a real good complement. Bert’s a real natural net-front guy so you have a natural net-front guy out there, so it’s certainly something that we’d love to stay together and see that line really grow.”
They combined for eight shots on Thursday night, and only Bertuzzi was a minus player. He was minus-1, while Larkin and Mantha were even.