DETROIT – There’s a new element being added to the game of hockey, although if you blink you might miss it.
If you ask Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, young players are entering the league with more speed than ever and it’s adding to an already faster pace of play. He would know – he coached two of the League’s fastest rookies as an assistant for Team USA at the 2015 World Championship last spring.
Those two rookies – 19-year-olds Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin – will meet for the first time in the NHL when the Buffalo Sabres play the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena.
“I think the speed of the game has been up. The speed of which we play, how we play, has gone up,” Bylsma said. “But now you’re seeing actual players that are pretty much faster than everybody else and it’s exciting to see.
“I mean, these guys can flat-out fly and I think when you see Jack Eichel accelerate, it goes by people. And same for Dylan, the way he’s flying down the wing. It’s a new element to our game, these young players – I don’t know where they rank, if they’re one, two, three, four or five with how fast they are – but it is adding to the speed of the game.”
Coverage of the game begins at 7 p.m. with Tops Sabres Gamenight on MSG-B and Bell TV. The game can also be heard live on WGR 550 with puck drop slated for 7:30 p.m.
At the World Championship, Bylsma said, Eichel and Larkin put their abilities on display after being thrust into a situation where they were essentially the team’s top two centers. That’s when the coach first experienced his young players’ speed, and it came against top-flight talent.
“It was evident then – and most of what I’ve seen is highlights – but there’s been quite a few of them in watching these last two games [for Larkin],” he said. “His speed is a factor on the ice at all times, whether they have the puck or he’s playing defense. It’s a factor and you saw that, even in the World Championships.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but it’s a surprise to see it be so effective at the NHL level.”
While expectations were already high for Eichel after being taken with the second pick in the draft, Bylsma isn’t the only person whom Larkin has surprised. Taken with the 15th pick in 2014, Larkin leads all rookies in goals (10) and is third in points (18). On Tuesday, he was named the League’s Rookie of the Month for November.
One of the few people who haven’t been surprised by Larkin’s outbreak, coincidentally, is Eichel.
“He’s a good friend of mine. He’s obviously having a great year and I’m not surprised at all,” Eichel said. “You see how good of a shot he has and how fast he is and how he can make plays at top speed – you guys are all getting used to this, but I’ve seen it for years now.”
Indeed, Eichel and Larkin have taken similar paths to the NHL. Just three years ago, Larkin said, they were battling each other in practices at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, pushing each other to improve.
Larkin still vividly remembers their first experience as teammates.
“The first time I was on his team – our [age] 17 year, our first exhibition game, there was a lot of hype obviously and I was like, ‘All right, let’s see,’” Larkin said. “First shift, he scored. And then they dropped the puck and he went down and scored again. He ended up having three or four goals that night.”
They met as opponents again last season as freshmen in the NCAA. Eichel returned home to play at Boston University and Larkin remained in Ann Arbor at Michigan. Eichel’s Terriers bested Larkin’s Wolverines that night 3-2. Eichel scored the go-ahead goal while Larkin tallied two assists.
When they face each other again Tuesday night, the stakes will be high. The Sabres are looking for their third-straight win and to gain ground in the Atlantic Division, where they trail the third-place Red Wings by six points.
“We need this game tonight,” Eichel said. “We’re trying to build momentum off our last two wins.”
After two-straight starts for Chad Johnson in net, rookie goaltender Linus Ullmark will get the nod for the Sabres against Detroit. It will mark his first action since allowing three goals in 26:29 of ice time against Nashville on Nov. 25.
In the meantime, he said, he’s been staying sharp in practice.
“Just keep on grinding, working on my game,” Ullmark said. “You’re just having to focus on the details every day and don’t take anything for granted.”
Johan Larsson will also make his return to the lineup after serving as a healthy scratch for Buffalo’s back-to-back wins on Friday and Saturday. Bylsma expressed to Larsson what he hoped to see during a conversation on the ice at the Sabres’ morning skate.
“It’s just time, time for him to go back in,” Bylsma said. “I want to see some energy and passion in his game. He’s a good player with speed and skill and he’s got to bring it. A little more jam, a little more passion to his game and I know he can provide it.”
9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O'Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
26 Matt Moulson – 15 Jack Eichel – 12 Brian Gionta
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 88 Jamie McGinn
22 Johan Larsson – 17 David Legwand – 82 Marcus Foligno
4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
25 Carlo Colaiacovo – 47 Zach Bogosian
29 Jake McCabe – 46 Cody Franson
35 Linus Ullmark
31 Chad Johnson