MOUNT CLEMENS, Mich. -- Dylan Larkin could have coasted, taken a loss and relaxed. It was a Thursday night in July, and this was the Eastside Elite All-Star Classic, a 3-on-3 tournament in a summer league in suburban Detroit. His team was trailing 2-0 in the losers bracket. Cold beverages awaited.
But the Detroit Red Wings center was a main attraction at an event that packed Mount Clemens Ice Arena and raised money for ALS, autism, concussions and the Special Olympics. He'd won it last year, the league title too. He didn't want his team to be the first eliminated this year, especially not against Red Wings teammate Danny DeKeyser.
Larkin scored three goals to lead his team to a 3-2 victory, weaving through opponents on the rush, banging in a dirty goal in front, popping a water bottle with a one-timer from the slot in overtime. Then he scored two more goals as his team won two more games and the tourney, closing out a game with an empty-netter, making a nifty move in the final.
"Yeah," he said, "a little competitive nature kicked in."
That's Larkin's nature, and key as he tries to take the next step in his NHL career and the Red Wings continue rebuilding.
"I want to be the guy," Larkin said. "I honestly don't believe in No. 1 centers in the NHL [in terms of labels]. Who's the No. 1 center in Toronto? Who's the No. 1 center in Pittsburgh? You've got to have two centers. [But] I want to be the guy that's out there whether we're down by a goal and we need to score with a minute left or we're up by a goal and taking that huge faceoff in your [defensive] zone. So just want to be looked at as that, like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have for so long in Detroit."
The Red Wings need Larkin to become the guy. Datsyuk left for SKA Saint Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League after the 2015-16 season, the last of Detroit's streak of 25 straight Stanley Cup Playoff appearances. Zetterberg turns 38 on Oct. 9 and has back problems. General manager Ken Holland has said he expects Zetterberg to play this season, but it is not certain.
Larkin turns 22 on Monday. A restricted free agent, he said there are no major issues in contract negotiations. He doesn't feel like a veteran yet, even though he's entering his fourth NHL season and the Red Wings will give opportunities to younger players, including forwards Michael Rasmussen, 19, and Filip Zadina, 18.
"We have one of the best veteran cores in the NHL of people and players," Larkin said. "They're special people, and they're established. When I think of a veteran, I think of someone who's paid their dues and been around and knows the ins and outs and have a lot of respect."
Larkin isn't there yet, though he made strides last season. He had NHL career highs with 63 points, 18 more than ever before, and 47 assists, 25 more than ever before. He averaged 19:51 of ice time in 82 games, 3:18 more than ever before. It wasn't for lack of chances that he scored 16 goals, the fewest of his NHL career. His shooting percentage was a career-low 6.9.
"I want to be a way better player," Larkin said. "I know I can be a way better player to help myself and our team, and I've got a long way to go. I thought I had a pretty good year, but I want to be that guy like I was talking about."
Where does he need to improve?
"Everywhere," he said.
He mentioned scoring and the power play, where Detroit ranked 24th at 17.5 percent last season. He mentioned plus-minus and faceoffs as well. He was minus-9 in his third season, better than the minus-28 he was in his second season but not as good as his plus-11 rating as a rookie, when he broke in on the wing and the team was stronger. He won 49.9 percent of his faceoffs, the best showing of his NHL career but still below 50 percent.
"There's a bigger picture, a more complete game, I think," he said. "Yeah, you could say pretty good year, but it's that next step where superstars are, and that's where I want to be."
For the second straight year, Larkin served as an alternate captain for the United States at the IIHF World Championship under Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill. He worked on defense in a shutdown role, taking big faceoffs and matching up against the likes of Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid of Canada, while putting up nine points (three goals, six assists) in 10 games. The United States defeated Canada twice and won bronze.
"It was another positive experience where I brought back a lot of confidence going into the summer," he said.
He skates about five times a week, playing twice a week in the Eastside Elite Hockey League, organized by Anaheim Ducks defenseman Steve Oleksy for 10 seasons, and working with skills coach Brandon Naurato, whom the Red Wings hired as a consultant this summer.
"It's almost August," he said. "I feel great and excited already to get back to training camp. It's coming soon, it's going to be a great time and I feel great."