As a diehard fan of any sports organization, I try to keep my expectations of top prospects restrained. Think about how often we, as fans, look to these teenaged athletes and arbitrarily throw the weight of our beloved team's future on their shoulders. It's easy for us Red Wings fans, as the core players of this team are nearing the sunsets of their very successful careers, we look to the promising crop of youthful talent down in the AHL and junior league rankings. While Detroit has always been exceptionally gifted with finding late-round talent in the NHL Draft, it wasn't until recently where we found ourselves with a truly exciting top prospect not only in the organizational system, but the NHL as a whole.
After taking Anthony Mantha at 20th overall in 2013, it was clear that the former CHL Player of the Year, and QMJHL MVP was destined to start his rookie career with the big club in the Motor City. Unfortunately for Mantha and the organization, a leg injury derailed those expectations. After recovering from injury, and debuting in Grand Rapids with Detroit's AHL affiliate, Mantha learned something - Scoring 81 goals in 81 games isn't going to happen in the pros. After a summer full of hype, and excitement from the entire fanbase, Mantha was wrongfully deemed to have had a "disappointing" season when he scored 33 points in 62 games. Disappointing? A little, but I think we all learned a valuable lesson as fans - Pump the brakes when it comes to prospect hype... Or did we?
In 2014, the Red Wings saw their highest draft pick since taking Martin LaPointe at 10th overall in 1991. After an injury-plagued season, and a swift exit from the NHL Playoffs, the Red Wings saw themselves picking at 15th overall. With that pick, they took Dylan Larkin, a center out of Waterford, Michigan who was committed to the University of Michigan. There wasn't much jumping out of my seat when they made the pick, even though he was a guy I had on my list. But it didn't take long for the once-projected third line center to take the fast-track to being one of the NHL's most elite prospects.
By now, we all know the story. Larkin has not only been successful, but utterly dominant at every level he has played at over the last year. Whether it be NCAA, World Juniors, AHL, or World Championships - The kid's world-class talent simply translates over. His ability to make plays with the puck, and maintain silky-smooth strides is uncanny. He's what I like to call a "catalyst player." Whenever he's on the ice, everyone is moving quicker, the transition game is effortless, and good things just seem to happen. Oh god, I'm over-hyping a prospect again. No, no, no! This can't happen!
Hold it right there.
Unlike Mantha's situation where we didn't get to see him in preseason action after his breakout season in the QMJHL, we're seeing what Dylan Larkin can do. Yes, maybe it is just training camp and exhibition, but he's not exactly standing out among the prospects - This kid is downright standing out among most roster players. In fact, (hot take incoming) I think outside of Pavel Datsyuk, Larkin may be one of the best players the Red Wings have down the middle. I don't think his vision for the game is on par with Henrik Zetterberg's, but his speed, and ability to go hard to the net in a graceful yet dominant fashion is second to none.
In the most recent preseason game against Pittsburgh, Larkin got a look on the first line centering Gustav Nyquist, and Justin Abdelkader. The Red Wings routed the Penguins in a 7-2 win where Larkin had a showcase scoring a goal and an assist in highlight reel fashion:
It's not that simple, I know. The Red Wings have a logjam of forwards with limited wiggle room to create space for prospects to crack the opening night roster. With Datsyuk, and Helm both out, I think room could be made to have Larkin starting at 3rd line center playing 10-15 minutes a night. We all know Ken Holland has latched onto the concept of "over-ripening" his team's prospects, but I'm not sure that's the right move when you have a player like this. It seems that Larkin is destined to be a great player at the NHL level, and while it's only preseason, he's showing he can compete with professional athletes. Maybe it's time to take a new course of action, and develop this kid at at highest level of competition available.
Here's what JJ wants to say:
I've watched prospects have good camps before, but I've never seen one play a complete veteran-style game the way Larkin has played this preseason. He makes his teammates better; this includes teammates who are already NHL-caliber players. I can't overstate how exciting it is to see a kid like that increase the level of NHL veterans. He's ready. Oh baby he's ready
Couldn't agree more, and I think most of the readers feel the same way. Kenny, do yourself, your team, and the fans a favor: Make room for Dylan Larkin on this team.