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Notes: Dylan Larkin learning at the NHL level

Season has been tough for Wings but Frans Nielsen sees good signs from young players

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

GROSSE POINTE WOODS, MICH. - It isn't the sophomore season that Dylan Larkin wanted but he should be better for it in the long run.

Wings coach Jeff Blashill said before the season that Larkin might not produce at the same rate offensively as he did last year.

That has turned out to be the case as Larkin has 12 goals, seven assists and is minus-18 after a rookie season in which he had 23 goals, 22 assists and was plus-11.

"I think the biggest thing with Dylan is he's going through a developmental process that started the second half of last year and has continued this year," Blashill said. "The first half of last year he didn't hardly make any mistakes and things really went well for him but like every young player, most of these guys have been afforded the opportunity to go through the learning process in the American League. He's learning it in the NHL."

It's a cliche that your biggest strength can also be a weakness.

Larkin is blessed with incredible speed but the NHL game, even as fast as it is today, isn't all about speed.

"He's played his whole life where he didn't really stop much, he just kind of kept moving," Blashill said. "Now he's learning how to stop. Stop in D zone, stop on the puck, stop on players, stop on the defensive side of the puck. Those are habits. They don't change overnight. We'll continue to try to help train him so that his habits are the habits that are going to make him successful for the next 15 years, not just for one game."

The process is different with another young Wing.

"Lots of times with Anthony (Mantha), he's got to skate," Blashill said. "He doesn't move his feet. So Anthony's totally different. Anthony had to learn how to skate on a consistent basis. When he first came to the American League, he did it 25 percent of the time. The other 75 percent of games he floated through like he did in junior. Then over time now, he's about 75 percent of the time he skates and 25 percent of the time he floats around like he did in junior. I just talked to him today, let's get you to 90. You're never going to be 100, that's just reality. Let's get you to 90 because then you're a superstar."

Larkin said he isn't just focused on points when he evaluates his own game.

"Maybe at the beginning of the year I did, but the way it's going right now just trying to focus on doing it the right way," Larkin said. "Like I said, gaining trust, gaining confidence and trying to become a good NHL player that works hard and plays both ends of the ice effectively and eventually can be trusted late in games."

There's also the fact that as a rookie, Larkin got to play with captain Henrik Zetterberg and this year he's been slotted on other lines. "He hasn't played as much, that's number one," Blashill said. "He hasn't played with Z all year, that's number two. Those are factors in points. So how much you play and who you play with are factors in points. But my job is to make sure he's a better player at the end of the year than he is at the beginning of the year. That's what we're doing."

The Wings are mired at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with 54 points in 57 games, 10 points behind third-place Boston.

But that doesn't mean Larkin is just thinking about building for next season.

"I think we got a lot of pride here, we got a lot of guys that should be playing in the playoffs and as a team we should be playing in the playoffs," Larkin said. "We got a lot of pride, we want to close out this year and we want to do everything we can to give us a good run."

CHALLENGING SEASON: The Wings are unaccustomed to being this far out of a playoff berth at this point in the season.

"It's been a tough season, not just for me, but no different from other guys," Zetterberg said. "It's been hard for me too. It's hard to go through this, but you do it as a team and try to get better every day and improve. It's been some tough seasons here lately, basically grabbing the playoff spots in the last couple games of the year. In that way it's no difference, but we've never been this far back this time of the year. But the only thing we can do is work hard every day and try to get better and improve as individuals and as a team."

Frans Nielsen, who signed with the Wings in the offseason, agreed with Zetterberg.

"Of course no one is feeling good about it right now," Nielsen said. "We're absolutely not where we want to be and think we should be with the talent that's in that room. But we just gotta take one day at a time and we gotta continue to improve every day and whatever happens we gotta make sure we play right way and have the right mentality and no matter where we are in the standings and what's going on out there, we gotta show up and play with some pride and play for our logo on the chest. We just gotta start finding a way."

At 36, Zetterberg is three years removed from back surgery and leads the team in points with 41.

Zetterberg played in every game last season and has played in every game so far this season.

"It's hard to be happy with the season when we are where we are in the standings," Zetterberg said. "You can always be better, you can always produce more. I'm glad I'm healthy enough so I can be out there and do my best. In that regard I'm proud I'm able to do that. I still think I can produce more. I play a lot of power-play minutes and I don't have a lot of power-play points. That's one area I can be better at and help the team."

If Zetterberg can still continue to perform at a high level and the young players continue to improve, Nielsen believes the Wings can take a big step forward, if not this year, then in the next couple of years.

"When you look at Double A (Andreas Athanasiou), Larkin, Moe (Mantha), I think we have three potential superstars in those three, hopefully sooner than later," Nielsen said. "But within the next couple years we're gonna have, we might have three of the best players in the league. We've got some great, great young players to build this team around so like I said no matter what - we might miss it this year, we might make it - we'll take it one day at a time but this team for sure has a bright future with those young kids around."

CAPITALS AGAIN, THEN PENGUINS: The Wings lost in Washington, D.C. last week but could have a small advantage going into Saturday's home game against the Capitals.

The Capitals are coming off their bye and haven't played since beating the Anaheim Ducks on Feb. 11.

So far teams are 3-8-1 when coming off a bye.

"In the end, three teams won so it's not foolproof," Blashill said. "We're playing probably the team that many consider the best team in the league right now. We got to play a great hockey game. We got to replicate a lot of what we've done over the last little bit, but find a way either through specialty teams or through a play here and there, to two points."

Ideally, the Wings would come out with a hot start.

"You got to try to keep the tempo high and keep the shifts shorts, get momentum on your side right away," Zetterberg said. "If we do that, we probably can take advantage from the start. But I would say, after the All-Star break. It probably takes a period and then you're kind of in it again. So, if we're going to take advantage we got to be sharp from the start."

After playing the top team in the league, the Wings have to travel to Pittsburgh to face the league's third-best team and the defending Stanley Cup champions.

"Gotta make sure when you play teams like that, with high end talent and superstars, you gotta make sure you don't get outworked and give them anything for free," Nielsen said. "I played a lot against them with New York being in the same division. It's fun games. It's good teams. It's gonna be high paced. Again it's those teams you want to measure yourselves up against. It's two big games for us."

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