The Detroit Red Wings are bad. No one is surprised by this statement, as they have been in the basement of the NHL standings for the entire season and are likely going to finish with one of the five worst records yet again. But in the dark depths of this 2018-19 campaign for Detroit has been the shining star that is Dylan Larkin. The 22 year-old center has taken his play to a new height and is one of the NHL’s most silent budding stars, largely because he’s buried on a bad team. But with his standard numbers portraying him as an emerging 1C and advanced numbers portraying him in very positive light, I thought I would pen this post about how good Dylan Larkin is and how important he is for the Red Wings’ rebuilding project.
Larkin in traditional terms
If you are an old fashioned traditionalist, Dylan Larkin’s numbers will likely impress you. In a year where scoring has begun to rise substantially in the NHL again, Larkin has been a beneficiary of this, playing just shy of a point-per-game pace and on track to obliterate his previous career highs. He has 24 goals (already a career high) and 31 assists for 55 points in 59 games played for the Red Wings, which if he plays all of the Red Wings’ remaining 22 games would put him on pace for roughly 34 goals and 42 assists for 76 points in 81 games played. That would make him both the highest point scorer and goal scorer in a single season for the Red Wings since 2008-09. He’s played and scored in all facets of the game, with 6 PPG and 2 SHG this season, boosting his career best offensive campaign. Prior to this year, his career point totals had been 45, 32, and 63 and his goal totals had been 23, 17, and 16. Simply put, he has taken his game to new heights.
Larkin in advanced terms
The massive increase in Larkin’s quality of play has been exemplified in the advanced metrics as well, and this is where we can get into a discussion of where he ranks league-wide. Let’s start with possession numbers. For those who are hockey analytic illiterate, Corsi For% measures the percent of the time that your team posses the puck while you are on the ice. Relative Corsi For% compares that number to how your team does when you are not on the ice, as a way to quantify a player’s individual value, separating them from team success. Larkin’s Rel CF% is 8.52%, meaning that the Red Wings possess the puck 8.52% more of the time when Larkin is on the ice than when he is off it, which is a huge number. For reference, that number is third in the entire NHL among players who have logged at least 500 minutes this year. Another stat is xGF%, which stands for “expected goals for percentage” or the percent of total goals expected to be produced while you are on the ice that will be scored by your team. A player with a positive number means that when he is on the ice, his team is expected to score more goals than the opponent, or a good thing. Like Corsi, there is a relative stat here too, so we can compare players against their team. Once again, Larkin stands out. His Rel xGF% is 7.79, which is top 20 among all NHL players and top 10 centers.
For these stats, I like to use the relative versions because many players on good teams can rack up high possession and expected goal metrics because they are on a good team, as opposed to Larkin who is on a bad team. But when you separate a player from their team using the relative numbers, you get a better idea of who is driving success and who is mooching off of it. These stats point to Larkin as being a game changer for the Red Wings when he is on the ice vs. off it, which lines up with the eyeballs of anyone who watches Red Wings games on a regular basis. What’s even more impressive among all of this is how much ice time Larkin is logging too, now that Henrik Zetterberg has retired. Larkin’s 21:53 time of ice (TOI) per game is in the top 5 in the NHL among centers. Finally, Larkin is starting in the offensive zone on a shift 52.6% of the time, which is far less than that of other NHL star forwards like Auston Matthews (59.0%), Connor McDavid (57.0%), Jack Eichel (64.1%), Patrik Laine (61.7%), David Pastrnak (64.1%), and Sebastian Aho (56.9%). Generally speaking, you score more goals if you’re starting in the offensive end of the ice and all of those players are getting a significant head start in the scoring department over Larkin because the Michigan-native is shouldering a greater load of responsibility for his team.
Larkin, the highlight machine
Now this is the fun part, where we get to showcase Larkin’s offensive prowess this season through clips. Let’s dive in:
This clip is simply one good pass, but it is an absolute dandy. Larkin is on a 3-on-2 rush with Nyquist and Hronek. He cuts out wide to the right while Hronek drives the net. Nyquist gives him the cross feed and Larkin has one potential play to find Hronek and he hits it right on the money. That pass had to be in the perfect spot and Larkin finds it and Hronek taps in the goal on the back door.
This was maybe my favorite Larkin goal of the year so far. In a three-on-three OT game against Toronto, Larkin harasses Tavares and forces a giveaway as the Leafs were trying to attack. The puck goes right to Nick Jensen, who flips it up into the air and basically tells Larkin to go get it. Larkin turns on those unparalleled jets and absolutely obliterates Morgan Rielly, blowing right by him to grab the pass at center. D-Boss comes right in on net, going forehand to backhand and sliding it between the exposed legs of the goalie for the win.
Another fun Larkin goal, this begins by a lazy defensive zone pass from #24 Derek Forbort. Larkin, who was starting to exit the zone at the time of the pass, comes zooming in out of nowhere to snatch up the loose puck. He then drags the puck to his right, undressing Drew Doughty, who goes down in front of the LA net, and then he weaves in on net to his left, beating the netminder short side for a beauty.
Larkin, the future
So let’s talk about Larkin and his future. His continued development has solidified himself as someone who the Detroit Red Wings are going to build a team around for the foreseeable future, which is significant. Just last summer, there was serious debate in Red Wings communities about whether Larkin would ever become a first line center and whether handing him the extension that the team did would be a mistake. And that was legitimate debate! His preceding three seasons did not really look like they projected a top line center. But his significant jump in production and play caliber has changed that discussion. The contract that the Wings handed Larkin in the offseason, a 5 year/$30.5 M deal, now looks like absolute theft. Larkin’s production is roughly on par with that of Artemi Panarin and Mark Stone (about a point per game), two players who are likely to get close to $9 M a year in the offseason, and they are both significantly older than Larkin and not centers. The Wings are going to be paying Larkin through the prime of his career anywhere from $2 to $5 M less than he’s really worth, depending on how his development continues to pan out.
The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, a big analytics dude, ran his projections based on game score and found that at his peak (age 25), Dylan Larkin projects to be roughly the same caliber of player as the average top line center on a Stanley Cup championship team. What that essentially means is that Larkin is a piece who the Red Wings can build around and feel very comfortable that he is going to be good enough to anchor a contender. Most importantly, due to his contract, it gives the team more money to spend on their other pieces and potentially go after free agents. Larkin has made everyone on his team better and has proved himself to be the most essential piece of the Red Wings’ rebuild, upcoming draft picks and potentially Filip Zadina notwithstanding.
The last elephant in the room to discuss about Larkin going forward is the fact that he has never gotten to play with an elite scoring winger. While many of the other young players in the NHL who he is compared to have the luxury of stars on their line (McDavid and Draisaitl, Matthews and Nylander/Marner), Larkin is playing with second line wingers. Though Gustav Nyquist’s contract year explosion has no doubt helped Larkin’s production this year, it remains to be seen the type of numbers that Larkin could put up if he were given a major weapon to his side. Wings fans hope that that player is going to be Filip Zadina, or that they get lucky and are given the luxury of drafting Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko. How much better could Larkin be if he had a superstar player with him? Remains to be seen, but Larkin’s improvement alone has made that possibility a thought. Until then, the Red Wings’ rebuild has at least been given some direction.
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