By @StefanKubus –
The dynamic between a head coach and his top player can often be one of the most sensitive relationships in hockey.
With Jeff Blashill and Dylan Larkin, things have gotten off to a good start in Detroit and the two hope to continue building their bond at May’s IIHF World Championship.
The Michigan-born duo each came into the league in their respective current roles in 2015-16, Blashill as the Red Wings’ head coach and Larkin as a rookie out of the University of Michigan. Both went to the World Championship tournament last year with Team USA after the Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in nearly three decades.
First and foremost, it’s not the tournament they’d like to be playing in at this time of year, but it provides a chance to still play meaningful spring hockey.
“It’s positive and negative,” Blashill said. “The negative is we’re not on the playoffs. The fact you get to coach Worlds, one of the reasons is you’re one of the coaches not in the playoffs, so that part is what it is. The positive is, it’s an unreal tournament and you get to stay in a real competitive environment for another month. I think it was an unbelievable experience, certainly not as good as being in the playoffs but it’s second to that.”
While it provides a competitive environment featuring some of the world’s best – Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid to name a couple – it provides another unique opportunity for Blashill and Larkin to grow, both individually and together.
“It’s just another opportunity to do that, and talking with him, we both enjoyed the tournament, and I think it was good for us to build a lot of trust,” Larkin said. “I played in all situations and I hope I can have that same impact this year at the tournament and our trust grows even more.”
After a disappointing second year in Detroit, Larkin recorded two goals, ten points, a plus-7 rating and 20 shots on goal in eight games at last year’s World Championship. Only Johnny Gaudreau had more points (11).
Team USA ultimately fell to Finland in the quarterfinals, but the tournament allowed Larkin a positive sendoff heading into his summer training and ultimately his bounce-back 2017-18 campaign.
It might not be a coincidence, either, looking around the NHL.
The 2017 World Championship top scorers were Artemi Panarin, Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon, respectively. Kucherov and MacKinnon are likely Hart Trophy candidates this season, and all three have recorded career-best point totals. MacKinnon especially shattered his 2016-17 numbers, potting 23 more goals and 44 more points, all in eight less games.
Larkin notably rebounded, as well, posting 63 points in 82 games, nearly doubling his output from 2016-17 and besting his 45-point mark from his rookie campaign. And it wasn’t just an offensive turnaround, either, as Larkin’s minus-nine rating was a far cry from the minus-28 rating he ended with a year ago.
“I want to win,” Larkin said of the tournament. “It’s not getting complacent with finishing in early April; playing hockey into May is what it’s all about. I just think I’m young, got a lot of energy, a lot of passion so I want to keep playing and with the passing of Jim Johannsson and the efforts we’ve seen from USA Hockey, we want to go over there and win. We’re trying to put together a team that can do that, and I think moving forward in my career, the next step is becoming a winner. When we get into games late, to have that extra factor where I take my game to another level to either hold onto a lead or try to get that goal to tie it up or win.”
Larkin said with all the history in Detroit it’s not hard to find inspiration in getting to that next level, both himself individually and as a team.
“You look all around this building, there’s reminders of the past and the Stanley Cups, great players and as a young player in the organization… I want that, I want to have that,” Larkin said. “I don’t want to spend my whole career, which is hopefully here, I don’t want to not be in the playoffs and not playing in big games. All these players hanging up in this room, they’re up there because they’ve won big games, played in big games. And I can’t tell anyone else to get better. I’ve got to look and try to get better myself and hopefully next year we’re not here for a couple weeks.”
With an attitude like that, it’s no surprise Blashill has acknowledged that Larkin is becoming a “go-to guy.”
“I think Dylan’s gonna be a big part of our team, and I think just building that time together… Last year was probably the first year where Dylan got to really be a go-to guy with me, maybe a little that year in the Calder Cup when he came out of Michigan,” Blashill said. “But last year was certainly the first time, I mean a real go-to guy up the middle and I think we can just build upon that. I think he’s been in that moment lots this year, he’s been a go-to guy for us lots. Hopefully this can continue to build upon our relationship.”