Monday December 14th, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The teenager was still shirtless, rushing around the hallways at Verizon Center while his teammates showered and changed to fly home, because for the first time since Dylan Larkin reached the NHL this season, an opponent had asked to trade sticks. Of course, Larkin wanted to oblige. The request came, surprisingly enough, sometime during that night’s game, a 3–2 shootout loss for the Red Wings, the team he grew up watching from outside Detroit, the team for which he now stars. After briefly chatting with the Capitals player who arranged the swap—a similar tradition to exchanging jerseys after soccer games—Larkin returned to his locker room carrying two new sticks. One was autographed.

“To Larks,” it read. “Slow down.”

This nod to Larkin’s jets on the ice, perhaps his most dangerous trait, doubled as recognition of the 19-year-old’s six-month ascent from college freshman to opening-night top-line left winger in the NHL. That Larkin outlasted the final roster cuts and debuted with Detroit on Oct. 5 was certainly impressive, though not entirely uncommon. Across the NHL, one or more teenagers have played at least 78 games in each non-lockout season since 1978-79, according to hockey-reference.com. But given the historical track record of the Red Wings, who last deployed a teen for their season-opener six years before Larkin was born, he was a baby-faced comet diving into town. Equally as notable, he’s become a serious contender for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie during a season that was expected to be a duel between two eagerly anticipated generational talents, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel.

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Through Dec. 13, including a dazzling assist last week in D.C. that he zipped between the open legs of a Capitals defenseman and hit the mark on the back door, Larkin ranked among the NHL’s leaders in five-on-five points per 60 minutes, up there with Hart Trophy candidates Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin. He also ranked second on his team in total points with 22, trailing only linemate Henrik Zetterberg, whose poster used to hang on Larkin’s bedroom wall.

“I’m not as surprised today that he’s become an important player on our team,” Wings GM Ken Holland says. “I can’t tell you that we saw that in his draft year. If anybody else saw it, he would’ve been gone by the 15th pick (when Detroit grabbed him).”

“It’s been remarkable, the run he’s on,” says teammate Justin Abdelkader.

At the time that Detroit drafted him in 2014—right before the announcement was made, Larkin turned to his father in the stands in Philadelphia and predicted, “This is it”—Larkin had finished a strong season with the USA Under-18 national team, based in Ann Arbor, and was soon to enroll at the University of Michigan. It’s easy to say the Wings plucked a gem from their backyard, but given the proximity of the U.S. development program’s headquarters, “There’s so many kids in our backyard,” Holland says.

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Rather, what came next stunned even the Wings. Larkin tore through one season at Michigan, leading all NCAA freshmen with 47 points in 35 games, and enjoyed what Holland called a “coming-out party” at the Under-20 World Junior Championship, which earned him a 10-game stint with the national team at the world championships in the Czech Republic. When Holland and then-coach Mike Babcock flew overseas to watch and meet with Larkin, he informed them he had decided to turn pro. Then he inquired about the status of Detroit’s AHL affiliate. “The next thing out of his mouth was, ‘If Grand Rapids is still playing, can I go there?’” Holland recalls.

The buzz soon reached the Red Wings’ locker room, especially after Larkin put up five points in six postseason games for the Griffins. “We knew he was good,” Zetterberg says, “but I don’t think anyone expected him to do this well.”

For team officials, keeping Larkin was an easy decision. When Holland told new bench boss Jeff Blashill, who had been promoted from Grand Rapids, that he wanted Larkin receiving top-nine minutes if the Wings kept him, Blashill’s response was, “He’s going to be better than that. He’s going to be top-six.”

And now: “He’s a very important player for the future of our franchise,” Holland says. “And when you add that he’s homegrown, he’s a Michigander, played minor hockey in the Detroit suburbs, certainly it’s a tremendous story and he’ll be very, very important to our team here for a long time.”

As Larkin has learned, his was certainly a different path than the last teenager who started for Detroit on opening night.

Once Larkin signed his entry level contract and joined Grand Rapids, he began forming a relationship with Jiri Fischer, the Red Wings’ director of player development. It was a fitting arrangement. A former defenseman whose playing career was cut short by a cardiac event that he suffered on the bench during a game in 2005, Fischer made his professional debut with the Red Wings on Oct. 13, 1999. He was 19 years 74 days old then, only three days older than Larkin was on opening night earlier this year when he needed all of the first period and 20 seconds of the second before scoring his first NHL goal.

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After a blistering 78-point season in the QMJHL, Fischer stormed into training camp hunting for a roster spot as 19-year-old, flatly telling his junior coach, Claude Julien, that he had no desire to come back to the Hull Olympiques. Since Fischer was still a teenager, the AHL was off the table; it was either the NHL or another year riding junior buses. He scored high on the team’s fitness testing, he recalls, and worked hard to stand out based on his size, but he still hadn’t signed a contract as camp wound down. Then, one afternoon after practice, Holland called Fischer into his office and explained that the Red Wings wanted to keep him in the NHL. Since league rules allow teams to return players to their junior clubs before they've played 10 NHL games, thus avoiding burning a year on their entry-level contracts, Fischer accepted with one catch.

“I said, ‘But if you guys are going to send me back to juniors after nine games, I don’t want to sign a contract,’” Fischer recalls. “They looked at me and they were like, ‘What? We just agreed.’ I don’t want to go back to juniors and be the only guy who had money. They looked at me like, ‘is this guy for real?‘ I think they liked the thinking behind it, that I wanted to be part of the team. It worked out.”

Ten minutes later, the deal was signed. Fischer played 52 NHL games that season, and was an occasional scratch on a loaded Red Wings roster at the peak of its might. He skated in 253 more with Detroit before retiring and transitioning into this front office role. And now along came Larkin, deciding to turn pro and falling under the umbrella of Fischer’s responsibilities.

“Everything he does is trying to lead to self-perfection,” Fischer says of Larkin. “He wants to be the most powerful guy. He wants to be the fastest guy. He’s working on his skills, he’s studying the game. He was leaving Michigan with that ‘rink rat’ type of label with him. He just wants more. He’s not satisfied by being rookie of the month [which he was in November, after scoring seven goals in 13 games]. There’s a next month and then a season. I think that’s a big part of why he’s so good.”

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Since Larkin’s family still lives in suburban Detroit, he and Fischer met several times this summer. At the advice of the Red Wings, Larkin bucked his usual off-season regimen of solo training and started working out with a trainer in Plymouth, with future teammate Luke Glendening. On top of their common Michigan roots, Glendening was a perfect partner for Larkin, known in the organization as “one of our most driven players internally,” according to Fischer. Once training camp began, Larkin had added around 10 pounds.

“The guys were pushing me,” Larkin says. “It’s trying to hang in there with some stronger guys. By the end of the summer I was right there with weights for them. I came out feeling pretty good. First time hanging out with pro hockey players, just after the season in Grand Rapids.”

Was he wide-eyed? Definitely. “It was pretty weird,” he adds, because, well, he had Zetterberg’s poster on his wall. Now he was flanking his idol on the top line.

With that penthouse promotion came the burden of tough assignments. In Washington, Capitals coach Barry Trotz consistently matched his top line—Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie—against Larkin, Zetterberg and Abdelkader. This brought tough moments—such as when Ovechkin decked Larkin in Detroit’s defensive zone—and effortless ones, too, like when Larkin returned the favor by dancing around Ovechkin in overtime and drew a hooking penalty.

His most brilliant sequence that night, though, happened against Washington’s fourth line, after an icing. Neither Zetterberg nor Capitals center Michael Latta won the draw cleanly, creating a small scrum around the dot. Waiting on the fringes, Larkin scooped up the puck and arced around the circle, angling his hips to face the net. His feed slid between the skates of defenseman Taylor Chorney and found Zetterberg on the back door for Larkin’s 11th assist of the season.

Dylan Larkin has no intention of slowing down.

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