A tale of two rookies: McDavid, Larkin meet when Oilers visit Wings
Two years ago, Connor McDavid and Dylan Larkin were two of the top rookies in the National Hockey League.
It was expected for McDavid to be in that conversation because he had been the top pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, with the same expectations of the likes of Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, etc.
Larkin, on the other hand, burst onto the scene sooner than expected as a 19-year-old sensation after being taken 15th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Red Wings.
Since then, McDavid’s and Larkin’s paths have diverged.
They meet for the second time this season on Wednesday night when McDavid's Edmonton Oilers visit Little Caesars Arena for a 7 p.m. contest.
Since early in the 2015-16 season, McDavid, 20, got injured and missed 37 games in that rookie season but still put up 48 points in the 45 games he played. Last season he had the season everyone had been looking for with 30 goals and 100 points to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer, the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award, which goes to the most outstanding player as voted by the NHL Players Association. He also led the Oilers to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
And after being named the league's best player – over Crosby – by NHL.com before the season began, McDavid is on track for another 100-point season this year with 26 points (10 goals and 16 assists) in 21 games. But because the Oilers are struggling – they’re 7-11-3 after being hammered Nov. 21 by St. Louis, good for 16 points and next to last in the Western Conference – as the team's best player and the owner of an 8-year, $100-million contract extension which is set to kick in next season, McDavid is shouldering much of the blame from some media, fans and observers.
Meanwhile, Larkin's fortunes headed south in the second half of his rookie season. After being selected for the NHL All-Star Game, Larkin set the all-time record in the fastest skater competition and had three assists in the semifinal of the mini-games tournament the following day. But his scoring tailed off and he finished with 23 goals and 45 points and was plus-11 in 80 games.
Last season he endured the sophomore jinx as Detroit's 25-season playoff streak was snapped. He managed only 17 goals and 32 points and was minus-28 in 80 games.
After playing on the wing as a rookie, Larkin returned to his natural center position at the beginning of the 2016-17 season. Things didn't go well, and he was switched back to wing after a few games.
But Larkin returned to center late last season, and things began to click. He also played center for Team USA in the World Championships last spring and was dominated the team that was coached by Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill.
"I walked out of the World Championships last year, and people on my staff said to me,. 'Boy, if Larks can play like that and (Zetterberg) can be anywhere near where he was last year, with (Frans) Nielsen, you're going to have three pretty good centers," Blashill told www.mlive.com.
And Larkin has continued his maturation into a complete center this season. Despite only four goals, he leads Detroit with 20 points – his 16 assists are tied with defenseman Mike Green for the team lead – is plus-4, and Larkin's face-off percentage is up to 52.6 percent from 45.4 percent in 2016-17.
He's doing that while playing key roles on both the power-play and penalty-killing units.
A big reason for the improvement has been Larkin's commitment to playing defense.
"He's really playing from the right side of the puck. He's understanding that you got to be a 200-foot player to be successful," Blashill said. "That's critical when it's done at center. I don't know teams that win that don't have complete centers."
Larkin talked about his development.
"I think I'm coming back to the defensive zone and kind of taking a breath, looking around and seeing where players are," he said. "I'm hanging around our net a little bit more, rather than being in the corners or being in the high slot. There's been times I've cleared pucks and taken a stick if the rebound was there. Trying to use my offensive instincts in the D-zone to kind of know where their guys are going to go, where pucks are going to bounce on rebounds and trying to just take away bodies."
Offensively, he's looking to facilitate things for his linemates.
"I came into the season with the mindset of wanting to make my linemates better," Larkin said. "The way I look at a centerman is as someone who is the director of the line. How the line plays and the kind of game they're having usually depends on the game the centerman is having.
"It's doing little things like going back and getting pucks. You're not going to get the breakaway or 2-on-1, but you might help set it up."
Larkin will be an unrestricted free agent without arbitration rights after his three-year entry level contract for $925,000 annually expires at the end of the season. And while he won't get nearly the extension that McDavid received, you can bet that Larkin will get a hefty raise with his next contract.
But that's for general manager Ken Holland to worry about.