Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports
1. What a start
Dylan Larkin came into the NHL playing some very, very impressive hockey. He was highly regarded coming out of the University of Michigan and had gotten an invite to the World Championships from USA Hockey (where he put up one assist in 10 games), but few could have expected that Larkin would put up ten goals and 18 points in his first 24 games as a pro.
That, of course, would be a good start for a 19-year-old in the AHL. But he was doing this in the NHL, getting decent minutes the whole time.
At the time Connor McDavid lost a couple of months to injury, it seemed as though Larkin was, perhaps, the guy who would establish himself as the Calder favorite. But that hasn’t happened. Artemi Panarin scoring at a ridiculous rate thanks to his internship with Patrick Kane is a big reason for that. So too is Jack Eichel going on a decent scoring bender for the last month (four goals and 13 points in his last 12 games after a 9-5-14 run in his first 32).
At this point, people have seemingly little to say about the contributions of Larkin to the Detroit cause or in the national picture.
2. But here’s the thing…
Larkin is scoring at a very consistent pace regardless.
He had 10-8-18 in his first 24, and in Games 25-42, he has 4-7-11 in 18. For those keeping track at home, his goalscoring has clearly declined (to 0.22 from the previous 0.42, a drop of almost half) as his point production is in the same area (0.61 now vs. 0.75 then).
Most teams would, of course, kill for a rookie who can post 0.6 points per game. That’s a pace for about 50 points. But the reason Larkin isn’t getting the attention is that a number of rookies are currently putting up cartoonish numbers. Eichel’s north of a point a game for the last month. McDavid was in that area before he got hurt. Panarin’s pretty close for the entire season (0.87). Meanwhile, Shayne Gostisbhere, who was inexplicably not allowed into the lineup by the Flyers to start the year, has 16 points in 23 games from the blue line.
Even Max Domi, who still sits second in rookie scoring, hasn’t gotten a lot of attention lately. With the way these other guys are going, it’s not hard to see why. Larkin at No. 3 among rookie scorers, therefore, bears even less consideration.
I recently filled out a “Half-season awards ballot” for Puck Daddy and gave the nod to Panarin, with the runners up being McDavid and Eichel. Larkin probably would have been my fourth or even fifth choice if I’d thought that hard.
3. What’s up?
It will come as an absolute shock to no one why Larkin isn’t getting as many points now as he did back in the first two months of the season: His personal shooting percentage has cratered.
It started the season at 15.6 percent through those first 24 games, which as we all know is an unsustainable rate. He scored ten goals on 64 shots. He’s good, but he’s not that good. He’s probably also not likely to continue putting up a shooting percentage of 7.8 — look at that, a decline of exactly half — for the rest of the year either. He has four goals on his last 51 shots.
This comes as he’s been taking more shots in every game, despite not getting that much more ice time (2.83 in 17:15 a night, versus 2.67 in 16:29). But on a per-60 basis, the improvement is a little more than one-tenth of a shot in all situations. That’s not moving the needle too much.
But that’s overall play. At 5-on-5, things are a little different, I think.
Larkin was getting more of a chance to shine offensively in the first half of the season or so because he was playing almost two-thirds of his minutes with Henrik Zetterberg, and mostly without Pavel Datsyuk to help out as well.
Obviously, he has the skill to keep up with Zetterberg, as no one could mistake those early-season performances as him being any sort of a passenger even at his young age. That hasn’t changed, though. He plays only slightly fewer of his minutes without Zetterberg now than he did in the first 24 games of his NHL career.
So maybe you have to think something else is wrong.
4. Is it really just percentages?
Not really, no.
Obviously, the percentages have regressed hard. When they were on the ice together, Larkin and Zetterberg had a 107 PDO at 5-on-5 in the first 24 games. Since then, it’s slumped to a still-quite-high 104.7. The only change, though, is in shooting percentage, as their on-ice save percentage has remained well above .950, and actually improved in the last month and a half or so.
But now they’re attempting fewer shots per 60 together and conceding more. Their personal offensive-zone time is down about 4 percent while opponents have seen theirs rise closer to 5 percent. That’s not a recipe for replicating early-season success, certainly. And this comes as they’ve gotten an easier ride in term sof where they’re starting their shifts, to the tune of about a 6.5 percent increase in offensive zone starts.
Typically zone starts don’t necessarily tell you much, especially on good possession teams, but when a line is getting pushed into its own end that badly, the fact that they’re above 60 percent in OZS% is, I think, a little telling.
Not that anyone should disapprove of that kind of thing: You want your prime offensive talent starting as many shifts as they can as close to the opponents’ net as possible. But the puck just isn’t going in for them as it once did, and they’re also playing markedly worse just in the flow of the game.
5. So what?
The issue, then, is whether Larkin and Zetterberg can get back on track. You’d have to guess that, based on their talent levels, they can do so with ease, especially given the general weakness of their division.
These are very, very small samples we’re talking about, so a few good games against Buffalo and Toronto can very quickly turn the tides. And good games are often easy to come by against low-talent teams such as those.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Larkin is going to hang around the Calder consideration forever. Eichel seems destined to pass him in the near future, and with McDavid poised to come back soon, one has to imagine he starts closing all kinds of gaps with the people in front of him.
That’s not to say Larkin can’t do it. He’d just need some serious help. He got it at the start of the year. Maybe he can get a measure of it again.