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Dylan Larkin given leadership role for Team USA

After tough sophomore season, Larkin hopes to use world championships to continue positive strides

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT - When the Red Wings drafted Dylan Larkin in 2014, people mentioned that the young forward carried himself like a leader.

When Team USA takes the ice this week in Milan, Italy and Cologne, Germany for the IIHF men's world championship, Larkin will be one of the leaders of a young team.

On Monday, USA Hockey named Larkin an alternate captain.

Arizona Coyotes defenseman Connor Murphy is the captain and New York Islanders forward Brock Nelson is the other alternate captain.

Larkin, 20, is playing for Team USA for the third time, helping the U.S. win bronze in the 2015 IIHF men's world championship and winning gold at the 2014 IIHF U18 men's world championship.

Larkin spoke about participating in the tournament the day the Wings cleaned out their lockers last month.

"It's another opportunity to get better and have fun playing," Larkin said. "USA Hockey, I always enjoyed playing for them and representing my country so I'm really excited about it."

It will also help Larkin get over the disappointment of not making the playoffs with the Wings this season, snapping a 25-year streak.

"As a hockey player, especially in a league like this, it's the best time of the year," Larkin said. "Games are just starting to heat up and this is when the fun happens. It's very disappointing and something that, I'll try to keep this taste in my mouth for the whole summer and remember this moment."

For now, Larkin will join teammates Jimmy Howard and Danny DeKeyser on Team USA and all three will once again play for Wings coach Jeff Blashill.

"Just more opportunity to learn from him," Larkin said. "From talking with him and Torch (assistant coach John Torchetti) and the coaching staff this year, towards the end of the year I think I made improvements on both sides of the puck and (I want to) continue that. I don't know who the assistant coaches will be (for Team USA) but there's another different voice, you can learn different tricks from them and have fun playing. That's ultimately why I'm going."

Blashill believes Larkin has a lot to gain, even in a short tournament like the men's world championship. '

"I thought he played his best hockey late in the year," Blashill said before leaving for Europe. "We moved him to center. I thought he really learned some tough lessons through the beginning part of the year. I thought at the end of the year he was a way better player than he was at the beginning and I thought he was really, really coming so for him to kind of continue that I think is a positive."

Larkin said he learned a lot from a difficult sophomore season in which he finished with 17 goals, 15 assists and was minus-28 in 80 games.

"This game's a lot mental," Larkin said. "Do a lot of mental preparation this summer as well as physical preparation. Be ready to go to war from the first day. I think this year I kind of came in and thought it was going to be a little bit easy, I kind of had it figured out but clearly didn't so need to be better in all areas and I guess put it on my shoulders a little bit to be ready from Day 1."

Larkin had 23 goals, 22 assists and was plus-11 in 80 games in his rookie season.

Things seemed to come together toward the end of the season for Larkin as he was given more opportunity.

"On the penalty kill, (there were) times where I could just go out and figure it out," Larkin said. "Like I said, make mistakes but I'd have the confidence knowing that eventually I'd get back out there and maybe try the same thing. Learn from what happened before and do the same thing and it would work. That's trial and error and I thought the last 20 games, I was playing and skating and playing center, winning face-offs and it was a lot of fun."

Learning what it takes to be consistently good in the NHL is a challenge for any player, but especially a young one.

"They'll eat you up and then it will get in your head and you're screwed from there," Larkin said. "Did learn a lot about myself. Hopefully the coaches learned about me. I thought I did come back. You look at the last 20 games, I came back to playing center and had good times and bad times and learned from the bad times."

Blashill said the initial plan is to keep Larkin at center depending on the makeup of Team USA.

"I think ultimately, Dylan can be a real good winger, I think he can be a real good center," Blashill said. "I think he's got some attributes at center that defensively can make him real, real special in his compete level. We'll continue to evaluate as we go."

Larkin, who played some center early in the season before shifting back to wing, said he felt more comfortable in the middle by the end of the year.

"I felt a lot better," Larkin said. "I felt like I had some really good chemistry with Double-A (Andreas Athanasiou) and always have good chemistry with Abby (Justin Abdelkader). I felt good at center. I think it's a good thing when they'd call up guys and you're playing with them so that means that Blash trusted me a little bit to put those guys with me."

Being a center means shouldering extra responsibilities, which are among the things Larkin says he wants to continue to improve.

"Defensively, I did make some improvements there toward the end of the year but I want to be better at face-offs, make my linemates better, be stronger on the puck down low," Larkin said. "Those two I just said are the biggest ones for me."

Larkin said he agreed with captain Henrik Zetterberg that the team has to improve from within.

At 36, Zetterberg was the team's best player on a nightly basis so that means the onus is on the young players to get better.

"I want this team to be great," Larkin said. "I want to be a good player and the only way to do that is to look in the mirror. You can't have anything given to you. It's not just going to magically happen. So put a little pressure on myself this summer and it will be good to feel that. I need to come back and do my part this summer and have a solid year next year."

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