If you ask Dylan Larkin about how his season went, he’ll be the first to admit that it didn’t exactly go according to plan.
“It was a little bit of a disappointing year,” Larkin said during his season-end media availability. “I played through a lot of things and a lot of injuries.” As he also noted, losing winger Tyler Bertuzzi – who has been a mainstay alongside Larkin on the Detroit Red Wings’ top line – definitely set him back early on as well.
But fans don’t want to hear why Larkin didn’t produce this past season, they want to hear what he’s going to do to get back to the player that scored 32 goals and 73 points during the 2018-19 season. With all due respect to Adam Erne, nobody could have expected the bottom six winger to lead the team in goals during the 2020-21 campaign. In Larkin’s first season wearing the captain’s “C” on his sweater, fans were expecting the team’s best player to produce like, well, their best player.
That’s why the 2021-22 season looms large for the 37th captain in team history. The narrative surrounding the 25-year-old has already begun to shift. With 76 points through his last 115 games – a points per-game (P/G) average of .66 – the days of calling him “boy wonder” are over. There seem to be just as many fans who view him as an expendable asset as there are fans that consider him to be a cornerstone piece going forward. To ease the nerves of the fanbase and, more importantly, to get his game back to where he expects it to be, Larkin needs to have a bounce-back year during the 2021-22 season.
Simply put: Larkin had his worst season since his second in the league back in 2016-17. Even in an abbreviated season, a .52 P/G isn’t what you want to see from your top center (he posted a .40 P/G back 2016-17.) Looking a bit deeper at his numbers, it’s easy to see how and why he struggled, but also why there’s hope that he can return to form in 2021-22.
First of all, his shooting percentage this season of 6.7 percent was the lowest of his career to date. If Larkin shot closer to his career shooting percentage of 9.1 percent, he would have led the Red Wings this season with 12 goals, an increase of three over the nine he potted during the season. One thing you can attribute this dip in production to is bad luck.
PDO is a metric designed to determine a player’s luck. If the number is below 100, that player is considered to have been unlucky. If the number is higher than 100, that player benefitted from a little extra luck. While PDO is best used when looking at teams as a whole, you can apply it to players to find some extreme cases in either direction. In Larkin’s case, his PDO this season was 96.5, the third-lowest among Red Wings players to play 25 games or more (only Bobby Ryan and Mathias Bromé had worse rates.) That Larkin’s shooting percentage and PDO were both abnormally low is likely not a coincidence.
There is also the fact that the Red Wings as a whole struggled to produce offense this past season. The team scored just 2.27 goals per-game. Detroit’s team leader in expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) – a measurement that, based on expected goals-for versus expected goals-against, determines which team is expected to score more goals when player X is on the ice – was winger Taro Hirose, though he played just six games with the Red Wings. Right behind Hirose was Larkin with an xGF% of 48.4. This highlights not only the captain’s struggles, but the team’s overall struggle to outscore their opponents.
If Larkin can get a little more lucky in the offensive zone, as well as offensive improvement from his teammates, that should help push things in the right direction for the young center.
(Stats per Natural Stat Trick)
An Honorary Czech-Mate?
One thing Larkin lamented during that year-end press availability was his inability to maintain chemistry with his linemates due to injuries and line shuffling by head coach Jeff Blashill. He did, however, make sure to give a shout-out to 21-year-old winger Filip Zadina, with whom Larkin spent 285 even-strength minutes alongside this past season.
“I really enjoyed playing with Zadina. He took steps everyday or game,” Larkin said. “He’s coming. He’s going to be a legitimate NHL player and that’s exciting for our team.”
Given that the sixth selection of the 2018 draft was drafted to become a top line player, it’s probably a good thing that Zadina formed some chemistry with the team’s top center. A fair assumption to make is that the duo will reunite next season, but the key will be who fills out their line of three. While Larkin was vocal about missing Bertuzzi, another player stands out as a fit alongside Larkin and Zadina: Jakub Vrana.
After coming over in the trade that sent winger Anthony Mantha to the Washington Capitals, Vrana played the final 11 games of the season with the Red Wings. Unfortunately, due to Larkin’s season-ending neck injury, the two of them never got to develop the same kind of chemistry the captain had with the player Vrana was traded for. That being said, in just under 17 minutes of even strength play, the trio of Larkin, Vrana and Zadina dominated the opposition, posting a Corsi-For% of 70.8. It’s a very small sample size, but if this trio can come anywhere close to replicating that kind of possession next season, that’s going to be great for Larkin and the Red Wings.
If all else fails, a healthy Bertuzzi should help out Larkin’s game as well.
What to Look Out For
If Larkin is going to have a bounce-back year, you’ll be able to witness a few signs of it on the ice. First and foremost, a confident Larkin is an assertive one. When he gains the offensive zone with speed and then decisively shoots the puck or moves it to a teammate, you know he’s feeling it. At his best, he’s a player that is keenly aware of where his teammates are, and he’s able to hit them with passes that he has no business completing.
While we know that Larkin is capable of scoring 30 goals in the NHL, his true offensive value is tied to his ability to create for his teammates. His career-high for assists is 47, set during the 2017-18 season. I think it’s fair to say that the closer his total gets to 40, the better you’ve got to feel about his season.
In the eyes of those that are paid to evaluate Larkin’s game – namely, Blashill and general manager Steve Yzerman – they want to see him develop into a dominant two-way center in the mold of Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins.
“My focus with Dylan (has) never been on a particular amount of points, it’s always been on becoming the best two-way player he can become,” said Blashill.
“Ultimately, I see Dylan Larkin as an outstanding two-way player,” Yzerman said on the same day. “My goal for him, and him and I have talked about it, is to strive to be one of the best two-way players in the game. He’s got the skill, the strength, the skating ability and the work ethic.”
For a center that doesn’t ooze offensive potential the same way that some of his teammates do, this route makes sense. Much like Bergeron, you can still collect a ton of points while playing a dominant defensive game, but it takes time to get to that level (and it helps if Larkin can find linemates like Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.) The ultimate litmus test for him may be whether or not the Red Wings are outscored when he is on the ice, and if so, by how much. While Detroit is still projected to be a losing team during the 2021-22 season, if their top player yields top line results, that has to be seen as win for a franchise that many see as a first line center away from becoming a real threat in the future.
Larkin Redemption Tour?
When he was named captain back in January, Larkin noted that he placed the onus on himself and his teammates to make sure the Red Wings did not repeat their struggles from the 2019-20 season. Though they still finished with a losing record, their season has mostly been summed up by the progress that was made as individuals and as a collective. To assume that the captain wasn’t a huge force behind that progress would be foolish.
But make no mistake: when Larkin is at his best, so are the Red Wings. He’s the straw that stirs the drink, the motor of the team and all those other clichés. It’s no coincidence that as his production has gone down, so has Detroit’s win count. Returning to form would be just as huge for Larkin and his career as it would be for the Red Wings. The numbers suggest he can do it, and he’s got the mental fortitude to make it happen.
We might be just a couple months away from the beginning of the Larkin Redemption Tour (coming to a city near you.)
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.