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Dylan Larkin's summer of self-improvement

Detroit's young forward committed to becoming an elite level player

by Arthur J.Regner @arthurjregner / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT -- At the time Dylan Larkin didn't think too much about it.

He had just concluded his rookie season with his hometown Detroit Red Wings and even though he was disappointed that the Wings had just been eliminated in the first round of the 2016 playoffs by Tampa Bay, being a Wing at the ripe old age of 19 was still pretty awesome.

Then he was asked the question.

"The locker room clean-out after my first year, one of the first questions I had was how are you going to do this again," Larkin recalled. "It tied in with the reporter asking, 'Have you heard of the sophomore slump?' So right from that time, it wasn't planted in my mind but if you look at it, people pay a lot of attention to that, (it) kind of was there."

Once the term sophomore slump was brought up to Larkin, his career path took some unexpected twists and turns.

It began last September at the World Cup of Hockey where he was a member of Team North America, a team composed of players from the United States and Canada who were 23 and younger. The roster was loaded with exciting talent and Larkin certainly fit that criteria.

Larkin's rookie campaign in Detroit was impressive. He made the Wings out of training camp and appeared in 80 games, accumulating 23 goals among 45 points and was a plus-11. Five of Larkin's goals were game-winners and he finished fifth in voting for the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year.

When you throw in his two years with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program (NTDP) in Ann Arbor, his one year of college hockey at Michigan where he was named Big Ten Freshman of the year, All-Big Ten First team and Second Team All-American, and his record in international play as a member of Team USA at the World Juniors and the World Championships, Larkin is one of the best young players on the planet.

However, in the three tournament games Team North America played, Larkin was a healthy scratch in the third game after being minus-2 in just 5:33 of ice time in a 4-3 loss to Team Russia in the second game.

"It was obviously different, first time ever being a healthy scratch and handling that," Larkin said. "I still look at that experience as a valuable experience, being with my peers, getting to know them and kind of just getting to hang out with them.

"Watching how they prepare for games, watching how they practice, it was great to see that. Just from all that, I still felt confident that I was right there with all the guys that were playing or weren't playing.

"Everyone was a good player, it was just fitting into different roles. Obviously I wasn't going to go there and be a top-six guy. Did I want to be? Yeah, but it didn't work out that way. I don't think I came back and was questioning my ability but I definitely would have liked to play in that last game."

Larkin returned to Detroit and began the season at center, his natural position. He struggled and was moved back to the wing where he meandered from line to line and saw his ice time curtailed in several games.

It wasn't until the last 20 games of the season that he returned to center, playing with Andreas Athanasiou. The two clicked and this time around Larkin did not look out of place.

In 80 games last season, Larkin's stat line was a bit disappointing. He had 32 points with 17 goals, 15 assists and was a whopping minus-28.

"I think the league definitely adjusted to my game and defenders really respected the speed that I had," Larkin said. "I felt a lot that I was just skating into the defensemen who had already backed up and then they would just seal me off and then I couldn't make a play. I just said that I'm going to have to adapt to how they adapted to me.

"It was a hard learning curve but once I figured out what I needed to do, I figured out that in a league like the NHL, you can never stop evolving and you can never stop improving on your game."

DETROIT ROOTS KEPT HIM GROUNDED

There were points where Larkin was extremely frustrated with the way his season was unfolding, but he was able to keep his emotions in check because he has a strong support system with his family, people in the Wings organization and the fans who are behind him 100 percent.

"Every time you're tying your skates, my stall is aligned with the hallway where we walk to the ice and at the end of that hallway is the big picture of Steve Yzerman's face," Larkin said. "Just to the left of that (in the dressing room), one of my idols growing up, Henrik Zetterberg is getting dressed.

"There's a lot of 'pinch-me' moments and things that occur regularly, but now I have kind of worked past that and gotten through that phase. It's just pretty cool that I get to have that, playing in the NHL in my hometown.

"I do get that. I think I get extra lucky because, not to rip on anyone else or be biased but it's the Detroit Red Wings, one of the more storied franchises in the NHL, the best owners in the NHL, a brand new rink, some of the cooler uniforms, it's the Red Wings.

"I'm lucky to be from Detroit. I'm even luckier to play for the Red Wings and then I'm even luckier to tie that all together that it's my hometown."

Larkin will turn 21 in late July, but he has an impressive level of maturity, a trait which the Wings noticed from the minute he hit their radar screen at the NTDP.

Former Wing Kris Draper, an assistant to general manager Ken Holland, has followed Larkin since the beginning and has become a confidant to the youngster.

Larkin says Draper has been the one person that has helped him out the most during his young career. Whether it's tips on face-offs, defensive play, advice on being a pro or just being a sounding board, Draper has been there for Larkin.

"I watched him play a lot of hockey at the National Development Program (NTDP) his draft year (2014), there's just a ton of stuff I just kept coming back to watch this guy," Draper said. "His skating is something that I love, but I was able to talk to his coaches and the one thing they kept saying was just how competitive this kid is in practice and obviously then I was able to see it on the ice.

"So the skating and the competitiveness and then you throw into the mix everyone just talks about what a great kid Dylan Larkin is and this is as a 17-year-old and I can remember doing our draft rankings and this was one of the things we always touched on is the character of Dylan Larkin."

WINGS TARGET THEIR MAN

As the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft progressed, the Wings wanted Larkin and were praying he'd slip down to them at the 15th overall pick, but Draper said there was a major stumbling block in the way -- Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars with the 14th pick.

Nill, the longtime Detroit assistant general manager, was in his second season as the Stars general manager and the Wings were convinced if Dallas picked a forward, Larkin was ticketed to the Lone Star state.

Draper knew several of the Stars scouts because many of them had Detroit ties. He kept looking over at the Stars draft table, trying to get a read on which way they were leaning.

"I looked at them and I'm like, 'Are you taking a forward or a 'D' (defenseman)?' He (unnamed Dallas official) looked at me and smiled and I'm like, 'C'mon man, give me something', and he says, we're taking a 'D' and I trusted him on that," Draper recalled enthusiastically. "I looked over to Tyler Wright who runs our draft, Jeff Finley (chief amateur scout), Ken Holland and Ryan Martin and said, 'I think these guys are taking a 'D,' we're going to get our guy.'

"We all had these big smiles on our faces and sure enough, they took the defenseman, his name was (Julius) Honka, a Finnish defenseman, and then right away we couldn't get Dylan Larkin's name fast enough into the computer to become a Red Wing. So, right from there I was excited for him to become a Detroit Red Wing."

Larkin was committed to play at Michigan and while he was a Wolverine, Draper forged a relationship with Larkin and his parents. Draper's relationship with Larkin's father, Kevin, convinced Draper that Larkin not only had the right stuff to become a star player, he was the type of person you would want wearing the winged wheel.

"As his rookie year was going on his dad kept always saying, 'When are you going to teach my son how to take face-offs?' and I'd say, 'Well, Mr. Larkin, we'll get on the ice someday,'" Draper said. "A week later he goes, 'You still haven't gotten my son out on the ice! You have to teach him!' Mr. Larkin is a great man and a passionate man and wants what's best for his son.

"Finally one day I sent him a text and said, 'Larks, I have my stuff at the rink and if you want to take some draws, we'll take some draws.' We went out there and had a blast for about a half an hour taking draws and talking about different situations."

MAKING A KID'S DAY

It was during one of these face-off sessions when Larkin approached Draper with a question.

"One time we're out there and he asks me, 'I hear you have a rink in your backyard.' And I said, 'Yeah, when I retired I built a rink," Draper said. "'It is basically a real rink. I have the pipes, I have the boards.' And he goes, 'I'd love to come over and skate with Kienan (Draper's 15-year-old son, 13 at the time) if that's OK?' I just started laughing and said, 'Larks, I think that's OK anytime you want to come over.'

"This just speaks to the type of kid he is. He came up (after a Wings practice) and he goes, 'Drapes, is there any way I can come over tomorrow and skate with Kienan?' He's a 19-year-old kid and I told him, 'Send me a text and I'll shoot you my address.'

"Sure enough he sends me (one) and says, 'I'll be over around 3 o'clock.' I told my wife Julie what was going to happen, but we didn't tell Kienan. So I pick Kienan up from school and I told Dylan to just get dressed and go out on the ice.

"He (Kienan) always looks at his rink when he comes home after school and he comes around and he can hear someone shooting pucks, it's hitting the boards and whatever and he goes, 'Dad, someone's on our rink!' So I go, 'Well, we'll take a look to see who it is.'

"So he takes a look and he's like, 'Whoa, that's Dylan Larkin!' He goes flying down to the dressing room, gets dressed and the amazing thing is those two guys were on the ice for about two hours shooting pucks, passing; Dylan was teaching him some tricks on what to do and I'm just sitting there and thinking, 'this is the kind of player you want to be a Red Wing' and that's just the stuff that Dylan Larkin does."

WEARING COUNTRY COLORS SPARKS RESURGENCE

After the season ended, Larkin played for Team USA in the World Championships in Cologne, Germany. Larkin, an alternate captain for Team USA, had a terrific tournament.

He finished second in scoring on Team USA with two goals among 10 points in eight games, was a plus-7 and he was among the tournament leaders in face-off percentage, winning 62.33 percent of his draws.

Larkin also led the Americans in ice time, averaging 20:27. Though Team USA finished fifth overall and didn't bring home a medal, along with Johnny Gaudreau and Anders Lee, Larkin was named one of Team USA's top three players for the tournament.

It was a rewarding experience for Larkin and a boost in confidence. He is looking forward to building upon that heading into next season.

"After a pretty disappointing year as a team and personally, it definitely felt good to go there and be a leader, be a guy that they looked at to contribute," Larkin said. "It definitely felt good to go there. It definitely made going into the summer, ending the season on a high note, I guess I could say."

Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who was Team USA's coach, was impressed with Larkin's game over in Europe, but he has always had confidence in Larkin because he knows Larkin strives to be the best.

"Dylan went through some growing pains this year, but to me it's a natural thing. It didn't come as a surprise," Blashill said. "I thought at the end of the year he was a much more complete player than he was at the beginning of the year, a better player because of that (growing pains).

"I think Dylan would say the same thing. He played great the last 20 games, we put him at center at the end of the year and he did a really good job. His defensive instincts at center are very good.

"He had an excellent tournament -- he was very, very good. He played against the other teams' best players, lots of shifts, he was on our PK, he was on our power play, he took important face-offs, and he led us in face-off percentage.

"He just demands he controls the play because of his motor and his will and determination to win puck battles, to win puck races and ultimately win hockey games.

"So I thought it was a real good sign. It was a very good step for him leading into next year and he's obviously a very important piece of this organization."

TIME TO STEP UP

Having Blashill's trust is essential for Larkin, especially if he wants to remain at center; a position where he feels comfortable.

"Going into next year it sounds like Blash wants him to play center and the one thing we talked about is when training camp comes or the end of August, let's really put a good couple of weeks into the circle to make sure that you're ready to go," Draper said. "Face-offs were a huge part of my career and a huge part of extending my career.

"I've always told Dylan, 'Larks, if you're going out against these top players, if you can win the face-off you're going to have the puck and you're going to make these guys work 15 to 20 seconds right off the bat in order for them to get the puck, so you're looking at half their shift is chasing a puck.'"

Draper is certain that Larkin will blossom into an elite center for the Wings. He sees in Larkin a drive, determination and desire to continually elevate and evolve his game, which is something only the truly legendary players seem to understand.

"When you're a rink rat and you have high-end skill, you're going to find a way to reinvent yourself and I say that as a compliment," Draper said. "That's what all the great players do. Every year Sidney Crosby has to reinvent himself, Steve Yzerman did it, Sergei Fedorov did it. When you think about the best of the best, there's a reason why year after year these guys are great hockey players.

"Dylan had a lot of success off the rush his rookie year and then when all of a sudden you're playing against these 'D' everyone is like, 'Keep him to the outside, keep him to the outside, he's going to go around the net he's not going to do a turn up and hit the late guy.'

"They figured him out and they just kind of let him keep skating and I've talked to Larks about it, just about how Henrik Zetterberg doesn't have the speed that Dylan Larkin has, the amazing thing is Henrik Zetterberg always gets to the inside.

"I told him, 'Watch tape on how these guys get to the inside.' I truly believe if he works on stuff like this throughout the summer of making a concentrated effort of getting to the net and getting inside the hard areas, he's going to have a lot of success.

"He's strong on his skates, I know who he trains with, I know how he trains and I know the expectations. You could see this year he was getting frustrated. You want to know why he got frustrated? Because he cares."

Larkin understands why his game dropped off and vows to correct his deficiencies. He wants to stand out at center and he will do whatever it takes to ensure the Wings coaching staff has faith he can deliver in the clutch.

"I got a lot of work to do this summer preparing and getting better in all aspects of playing that position, including face-offs is one of the top priorities," Larkin said. "But I think with just being there the last two months, I kind of think I figured out the position at that level a little bit more and now I feel comfortable that I can put myself in a position to be a go-to centerman and try and excel offensively and defensively.

"I need to just focus on being trusted by the coaching staff to play in big situations where any athlete wants to be in -- those big-time moments in a game, game-defining moments where you're either out there to win a face-off to help your team score a goal or you're out there to defend a one-goal lead. I want to be trusted to play in big situations.

"It really comes down to this summer and being a professional about things and taking care of myself and getting ready for next season, doing everything I can."

With a competitive nature which is off the charts, Larkin is approaching each day with a robust determination to make himself a player that will never be a healthy scratch again.

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