It had to be Dylan Larkin.
Thirteen minutes into the third period of what would eventually become a 5-4 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres, the 22-year-old center buried his 30th goal of the season, becoming the Red Wings first 30-goal scorer in a decade.
In the very next game, Andreas Athanasiou became the team’s second 30-goal scorer this year. But the first to do it… It had to be Larkin.
Looking back, it’s amazing to think the team remained competitive for so long without that kind of high end scoring. In 2009, they had four players with over thirty goals in Marian Hossa (40), Johan Franzen (34), Pavel Datsyuk (32), and Henrik Zetterberg (31). They were the reigning Stanley Cup Champions that year and went back to the finals to eventually lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games.
But as the Red Wings talent level fell off, so too did their scoring. Though coming close, Datsyuk and Franzen would never hit the milestone again. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar came close, but they never quite turned out to be the game breakers the team needed them to be to win.
Then came Larkin, the 19-year-old 15th overall pick who made the team out of training camp. He dizzied opponents with his speed and opened his NHL career with a five game point streak, including a goal and an assist in his first ever game.
With the old guard of Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall reaching the twilight of their careers, Larkin quickly became the next runner to pass the baton to in the neverending race to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Not with Zetterberg officially gone, Larkin is holding the baton and running with it. The team is nowhere near the Stanley Cup Finals, but Larkin has become the poster boy for the Red Wings rebuild. He has put the team on his back and carried them through the season, leading all forwards in time on ice and leading the whole team in goals (31), assists (37), and points (68). At times, it’s felt like he’s the only one who really cares what happens out there.
That’s why it had to be Larkin. He is the personification of a post-rebuild team and the beacon of hope who will lead us to better times.
He doesn’t quite have the elite talent that a Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews have, but his development continues and there’s no way of knowing where it stops. He clearly hasn’t hit his ceiling yet, so what more can he achieve? 40 goals? 100 points?
Wherever it is, it will be as the forefront of an emerging team of young and fast talent. With Athanasiou also hitting the 30-goal mark, and players like Anthony Mantha and Filip Zadina who should be able to hit it, the Red Wings have a strong offensive core to lead them out of the basement of the standings.
Defensively, they’ve got Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski, both of who have had impressive rookie seasons with a lot of space to grow. And then there’s this year’s upcoming top-10 pick.
It’s just going to take a little more time and a little more patience while development continues. But it’s happening. The 61 combined goals from these two young players are proof of that.
Larkin will continue to lead the charge, and when the ‘C‘ is handed out, I have a sneaky feeling I’ll be here writing the same words that started this piece:
It had to be Dylan Larkin.