DETROIT (AP) — Baby-faced Dylan Larkin is just 19 and doesn’t appear to be in much need of a razor.
The Detroit Red Wings’ center plays like a man by any measure.
After Monday’s games, Larkin led the NHL in plus-minus rating (+20), was tied for the most even-strength goals (11) and had scored more than anyone else in an impressive NHL rookie class.
Not bad for someone who was hoping just to make the roster.
“I’m still pretty surprised I’m having this type of success this year,” Larkin said.
Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, another standout rookie, shrugs when he sees Larkin effortlessly skate and handle the puck with his soft hands to make plays against the best hockey players in the world.
“You guys will all get used to this,” Eichel said. “I’ve seen it for years now.”
Larkin and Eichel were teammates and friendly competitors who pushed each other for two years with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program before both made one-season pit stops at Michigan and Boston University, respectively.
The Americans are among the NHL rookie scoring leaders with Russian Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks leading the way ahead of players such as Canada’s Max Domi (Arizona), Sweden’s Oscar Lindberg (New York Rangers) and Denmark’s Nikolaj Ehlers (Winnipeg).
“I think we’re seeing the results of hockey federations all over the world working together to develop our base,” said Paul Carson, vice president of hockey development for Hockey Canada. “Our game is truly a global sport.”
The rookie class has talent on the back end and in net, too.
Defensemen Colton Parayko, a 6-foot-5, 226-pound presence for the St. Louis Blues, and Colin Miller of the Boston Bruins have already reached double digits in points. The Montreal Canadiens have been able to lean on goaltender Mike Condon while Carey Price recovers from a lower-body injury.
Perhaps the NHL’s best rookie, No. 1 draft pick Connor McDavid of Edmonton, had 12 points in his first 13 games before being sidelined with a broken collarbone.
In all, this season’s rookie class had piled up 168 goals as of early this week—a 17 percent jump from the 144 a year earlier, according to STATS.
“It’s a young man’s game,” Sabres general manager Tim Murray said.
Hockey Canada is in its second year of having a national program for 17-and-under players instead of having them develop in one of 13 branches, or regions, as they do at younger ages.
USA Hockey has a unique model for developing players before they’re pros.
The NTDP, whose alumni include Larkin, Eichel and stars such as Chicago’s Patrick Kane, pulls the best young prospects together to train and play together for two years in suburban Detroit.
“We’re in our 19th year and no other country has a program quite like it,” said Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of USA Hockey. “When you take special players and you develop them physically, mentally and socially, it helps them become more ready to play in the NHL at a young age.”
Hall of Famer Mark Howe, director of pro scouting for the Red Wings, sees players turning potential into production quicker than ever before in part because of the salary cap.
“The bottom line is, you have to have players who are less expensive on your roster,” Howe said. “But these young kids are making the most of their opportunities because they’re physically ready to play much more than they were in the past.”
Unlike Larkin and Eichel, Panarin is not a teenager. The 24-year-old winger is a seasoned professional after playing in Russia’s KHL.
“You say he’s a rookie, but he’s the same age as me,” fellow Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw said. “He’s so skilled, so highly talented, so confident with the puck. You kind of expect it from him now.”
Other things of note around the NHL:
BIRTHDAY PARTY: The league is making plans to celebrate its centennial in 2017. The NHL hired Steve Mayer from sports-marketing giant IMG as its new executive vice president and executive producer, programming and creative development to oversee the celebration.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Detroit has surged in the standings and yet has a lot of work to do to catch the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division-leading Montreal. The Red Wings will get a chance to make up some ground at home on Thursday night against the Canadiens, who will be playing for a second straight night.
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow, AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow and freelance writers Scott Powers and Denis Gorman contributed to this report.
Follow Larry Lage at http://www.twitter.com/larrylage