The most important fact the Detroit Red Wings have learned this season is that they can count on Dylan Larkin, 22, to be a difference-maker.
“We’ve got what I call a bus driver,” general manager Ken Holland told USA TODAY Sports. “Jonathan Toews drives the bus in Chicago. Patrice Bergeron drives the bus in Boston. Dylan Larkin drives the bus in Detroit. Those guys are hard to find. He’s not Connor McDavid or Austin Matthews, but he is a bus driver.”
The rebuilding Red Wings knew Larkin was an exceptional young player. But with Henrik Zetterberg retiring last summer, they have discovered, Larkin, taking his game to a higher level — with leadership part of his mandate. He’s feistier, harder to play against, and has 45 points in 48 games. He has 177 shots on goal, only six fewer than Alex Ovechkin. Nothing illustrates the inspirational quality of Larkin’s play more than four overtime goals.
“What do we respect about Toews and Bergeron? They come to play every day,” Holland said. “Now I have a young player who every day is pushing and pushing to be better.”
Of the eight teams at the bottom of the NHL standings, five are either Original Six teams (Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers) or high-profile, big-market teams (Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers). Of that group, the Red Wings are the team deepest into their rebuild plan.
Although the Red Wings rank 26 out of 31 teams and will miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season, this has been an encouraging season because they are playing several young players who are showing promise. Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou both will score 25-30 goals and Anthony Mantha (11 goals in 33 games) probably would have been there too, had he not been injured.
Tyler Bertuzzi, 24, (13 goals and 25 points) is another player who could score 20 on a Red Wings team averaging 2.79 goals per game.
“He’s a junkyard dog. He’s not the prettiest guy going,” Holland said. “But he has great hockey sense, and hands. The feet are getting better.”
The Red Wings are playing with seven forwards who are under 25, plus 20-year-old defenseman Dennis Cholowski and a 21-year-old defenseman Filip Hronek. Detroit also has Swedish prospect defenseman Gustav Lidstrom (no relation to Nick) who they believe will be in the lineup in a couple of years. They also believe a few players from the 2018 draft, particularly Filip Zadina and defenseman Jared McIsaac, will be significant performers.
Trade speculation has Detroit trading Gustav Nyqvist, Thomas Vanek, Nicklas Kronwall and goalie Jimmy Howard before this season’s trade deadline.
But with the Red Wings’ rebuilding plan on schedule, Holland would like to re-sign Howard, 34, who has improved and tightened up his game as he’s gotten older. .
They have contracts coming off the books this summer, including more than $17 million to four players. More than $12 million could be available in 2020 when the contracts of Mike Green, Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson end.
“It’s starting to piece together,” Holland said.
► Philadelphia Flyers: Chuck Fletcher is shepherding the Flyers’ refurbishing, and he owes a debt of gratitude to deposed general manager Ron Hextall. The Flyers won’t require a major overhaul because Hextall did a strong job of stocking this roster with young talent. Philadelphia uses three defenseman — Ivan Provorov, Robert Hagg and Travis Sanheim — who are 23 and under. Plus, Shayne Gostisbehere is only 25. Key forward Travis Konecny is 21. Goalie Carter Hart, 20, is a potential superstar. Claude Giroux, 31, is still an effective go-to player with 52 points in 47 games. They will trade Wayne Simmonds for a desirable asset. The hope is coach Scott Gordon can push Provorov back on track toward a Norris Trophy and re-energize Jakub Voracek. If this occurs, the Flyers could be a playoff team next season.
►New York Rangers: Although the Rangers announced to fans last season that they were rebuilding, it won’t get real until they trade Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello before the trade deadline. The hope for the future rests with forwards such as Filip Chytil, 19, Brent Howden, 20, and Pavel Buchnevich, 23. Tony DeAngelo, 23, has shown promise as a puck-moving defenseman, but hasn’t yet won over coach David Quinn. He had two goals in his last game, but is often a healthy scratch. Another key prospect is Lias Andersson (15 points in 21 AHL games). There’s buzz about Russian goalie Igor Shesterkin, who is 18-4-0, with eight shutouts, in the Kontinental Hockey League this season. A few veterans will still have to be moved to create opportunities for younger players. The Rangers must take another half step back to move forward.
►Chicago Blackhawks: We are watching the Blackhawks pay their price for winning three Stanley Cups from 2010-2015. To stay on top, they gave out lucrative, long-term deals to top players. As a result, depth has eroded. News isn’t all bad in Chicago. Patrick Kane is still one of the top players in the game. Jonathan Toews has also had a rebound season. Alex DeBrincat, 21, is on a 39-goal pace. Picking up Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini from the Arizona Coyotes helps. Strome has been more productive since coming to Chicago. Henri Jokiharju, 19, is playing regularly on defense. Dynamic defense prospect Adam Boqvist could be on the team next season. Landing another blue-chip prospect in the 2019 draft will help. But next season could look like this season.
►Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are still in the “Where do we go from here?” stage. With Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty tied up in long-term deals, they aren’t going to embrace a full rebuild. General manager Rob Blake will have to revamp on the fly. That’s the most challenging “fix” strategy in the game. The Kings have six forwards and two defensemen in the 30 and over age category. They’ve worked some younger forwards (Adrian Kempe, Austin Wagner and Matt Luff) into the mix this season. Their best prospect, Gabriel Vilardi, has been undermined by injury. The Kings are excited about Finnish forward prospect Rasmus Kupari, but he may not be ready until 2020. You hear Jake Muzzin’s name mentioned in trade talks. The Kings have to get younger and faster. That may not happen as quickly as they would like.