By: Will Burchfield
When Dylan Larkin lines up against Patrice Bergeron in the face-off circle on Tuesday night, he’ll be staring at the player the Red Wings hope he can become.
Bergeron, 32, is the gold standard for two-way centers in today’s NHL. Larkin, 21, is a gifted offensive player developing a 200-foot game. He’s also the Wings’ heir apparent to Henrik Zetterberg down the middle, which makes his growth over the next couple years vital.
To advance this process, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill has identified veterans for Larkin to emulate, something he does frequently with the team’s young players. In Larkin’s case, Bergeron is a natural model.
“Dylan’s a real smart person. He wants to be the very best player he can be, and a couple guys that we’ve talked about…certainly Bergeron’s one, (Jonathan) Toews is another one. Guys that if Larks can learn stuff from and add to his own game, I think it will help him be an elite player,” Blashill said.
There’s so much to learn from Bergeron it’s hard to know where to start. He’s a hockey clinic in the flesh. Put another way, he’s a nine-time 20-goal scorer who’s often overlooked for his offensive ability. Four Selke Trophies as the NHL’s best defensive forward will have that affect.
Blashill went so far as to suggest Bergeron has been this season’s MVP. Indeed, the Bruins lost the NHL’s leading point-per-game player in Brad Marchand to a suspension last week and they’ve hardly slowed down. Bergeron’s line, which featured Marchand on the wing, hasn’t skipped a beat.
“Bergeron, for me, has probably been the best player in the league for the season up until now. There’s a couple others – (Nikita) Kucherov – that could make arguments, but I think he’s had as big an impact on winning as anybody in the league,” Blashill said.
The essence of Bergeron’s value is that he consistently makes those around him better. Zetterberg has long been praised for the same reason — it’s probably the highest compliment any player can be paid. Larkin, in his third season, is making a push into that territory.
Asked recently if any player on the Wings elevates the play of his linemates to the degree of Zetterberg, Blashill pointed to No. 71.
“I think Larks has worked real hard at becoming a give-and-go player, and certainly I think that’s shown in his assists. I thought Larks was a way better passer than people gave him credit for a year ago. A lot of people didn’t know if he had the same vision, but I think he does,” Blashill said.
Larkin already has 30 assists this season, smashing his previous career high of 22. The goals haven’t come the way he’d like — he has eight in 51 games — but there’s really no doubt he’s been Detroit’s most dynamic offensive player.
In fact, Larkin’s one of just four forwards on the team with positive possession metrics, and he’s the only one among them starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone. That’s Bergeron-esque.
It’s highly encouraging for the Red Wings, too. After deploying Larkin in mostly sheltered situations for the first two years of his career, Blashill has given him more minutes against tougher competition this season. And Larkin has responded by playing the best hockey of his career.
Still, there are warts to his game he needs to address. They can generally be found on the defensive side of the puck. For Larkin to mature into the type of two-way center the Wings can build around, he needs to prove he can consistently match up with the opposition’s best.
This role, which Frans Nielsen currently plays for Detroit, is the very hallmark of Bergeron’s career. It’s what earned him a spot on Canada’s loaded Olympic roster in both 2010 and 2014 (remember the days?) and it’s what makes him an indispensable part of the Bruins.
“It’s something I always kind of grew up with,” Bergeron said. “I’ve always taken a lot of pride in making some defensive plays as much as scoring goals. I don’t know exactly when I felt like I was (among the top two-way centers in the NHL), but I felt like every year I was trying to learn.”
As Blashill encourages Larkin to do now, Bergeron refined his game by watching some of the best players at his position.
“Datsyuk was definitely one of them,” said Bergeron.
For a long time, Pavel Datsyuk held the mantle of best two-way center in the NHL. He won three consecutive Selke Trophies from 2007-08 to 2009-10 and then essentially passed the belt to Bergeron. Datsyuk was in his final season with the Red Wings when Larkin was in his first. Larkin didn’t have to look far for inspiration.
He still doesn’t.
“He’s played with two of the best two-way, winning centers in their prime in Zetterberg and Datsyuk,” Blashill said, “so he’s been around those guys.”
To Bergeron, the zeal with which Datsyuk hunted down the puck was something that always stood out. It’s now a strength of Bergeron’s and an area in which Larkin continues to grow.
“Being on the puck, wanting it back, but also when you don’t have it being in good position. The way that Datsyuk was so good at lifting your stick on the back-check and creating some turnovers out of that, that was definitely something I took notes on,” Bergeron said.
“Obviously the hands and the skillset is a different story,” he added with a smile, “but those little details I was looking at for sure.”
Those little details are what can take Larkin from good to great. He’s already a cerebral player with loads of skill. He’s becoming a difference-maker at both ends of the ice and learning to compete like crazy on a nightly basis. The foundation is there.
So might it be in place for the Red Wings’ rebuild. The organization still needs to find a legitimate No. 1 defenseman, but Larkin is looking like he can check the other all-important box in today’s NHL.
“I think elite two-way centers are the most prized possession,” Blashill said.
The Bruins have one in Bergeron, who sees one in Larkin.
“He’s very fast, very smart and skilled. Plays the game hard,” Bergeron said, “and seems like one of those guys that wants to get better and be an impact player in this league.”