DETROIT, MI – The Red Wings have had just three captains over the last 34 years: Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg.
Now, after a two-year vacancy at the position, they have their next one. The Red Wings announced Dylan Larkin as the 37th captain in franchise history Wednesday, the day before they begin the 2021 season.
Yzerman said before last season’s training camp — his first as Detroit’s general manager — that he wanted to get to know the players before naming a captain, and that when the franchise did decide on one, “I intend that person to be the captain for a long time.”
Larkin fits that bill. After being picked 15th overall by the Red Wings in the 2014 NHL Draft, he has become one of their best players and most important leaders. Last season, he wore an “A” as one of four alternate captains for the team.
Yzerman certainly brought a wealth of experience to the decision, after leading Detroit for 19 seasons between 1986 and 2006. He was named captain at age 21, after the team’s disastrous 17-win 1985-86 season. Larkin, at age 24, is also taking the helm after a miserable season in which the Red Wings mustered just 17 wins.
The temptation to draw parallels between those circumstances is real, especially considering Yzerman’s influence on the decision. And it’s impossible to ignore Yzerman’s impact on the legacy of the Red Wings’ captaincy.
But as Larkin officially dons the “C” for the first time, who he is, and how he captains, are far more important. Because while the old saying is that you don’t need a letter to be a leader, the presence of that letter is obvious to everyone once it’s there. What does that change for a player?
“First of all there’s probably added responsibility, which sometimes can be hard for players, and I think that’s partly why I think it’s really important to be cautious and make sure that you’re making the right decision,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill told The Athletic recently. “But I also think you just gain a little bit bigger voice, meaning when that happens, when a person is named a captain, it’s like now instead of just talking, you’re talking with a megaphone. And what you say is more impactful.
“And so it’s really important that you’re saying the right things, but probably more important that you’re leading the right way. I would honestly say that’s where it changes, but the reality is … the most important thing is to be who you are, and to continue to lead the way you’ve led. Because that’s what’s put you in that position.”
That, above all else, is why Larkin was such an obvious choice. He won’t need to change.
“You know if there’s something that needs to be said he’s willing to say it,” Red Wings alternate captain Luke Glendening said recently. “And when you have a guy who practices what he preaches, it’s easy to listen to. It doesn’t get dry. It doesn’t run dry with guys because you see him putting in the work every single day to be the best player he can be.”
Glendening is talking, in part, about leading by example, a standard set by Red Wings captains through the years. The most recent names who have preceded Larkin in the role are Hall-of-Famers or, in Zetterberg’s case, at least have a chance to be.
Being in that tier of player is not a must for the captaincy, but at the same time, being a top player can go a long way when it comes to backing up what a captain is asking of teammates.
“You have to be able to do things if you’re going to talk about them in the locker room, or you’re going to talk about them in the heat of battle,” said Red Berenson, who coached Larkin at the University of Michigan and also served as Red Wings captain for the 1973-74 season.
“You’ve gotta go out and do them, and that’s a big part of it. A lot of great leaders never said much. Yzerman was known for being a quiet captain, but when the game was on the line, you knew that he was going to be able to make a difference in that game one way or the other, whether it was blocking a shot or winning a faceoff or scoring a big goal or creating a big goal or saving a goal. And I think those are the most important things, that you can do those things.”
Certainly, as arguably the Red Wings’ best player in recent years and a two-way centerman who plays some of Detroit’s most challenging matchups, Larkin has checked that box already.
He also, after five seasons with the Red Wings, has been around long enough to lead more directly, too. He has now lived through one of the toughest seasons in modern NHL history, which wasn’t easy on anyone, but does give him an invaluable perspective on the locker room, knowing what it needs and what it may respond to.
“He’s got a great temperature of the room in terms of, he knows when something needs to be said, when we need to call out something in terms of as a team, just not performing,” Glendening said. “But he also knows that there’s a time to lift guys up.”
These are words said about Larkin before he formally got the “C” — to Blashill’s point, the things that put Larkin in this position. More importantly, though, these are the things he’ll need to hang on to now that he’s here.
Carolina Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal echoed those sentiments late last season when asked what changed when he became captain, saying “everyone just kept telling me not to change, so I didn’t. It didn’t really change a whole lot for me. Personally I knew I was a leader in the room from the start, and I think most guys that are named captain already know that they’re a leader in the room.”