Put yourself in Dylan Larkin's shoes.
You're 23 years old, starring for your favorite team, fulfilling your childhood dream. Except the team isn't what it used to be, far from the one you joined as a rookie, even further from the one you watched as a kid. In fact, the team is one of the worst in the league, on a downward spiral you can't seem to halt. And here comes one of the greatest players in franchise history, a legend who used to live on your walls, to watch your every move. To see if you can do what he did some 30 years prior.
"It’s been great," Larkin said of his first year under GM Steve Yzerman. "Having his presence, obviously everyone in hockey knows what he’s done as a player, but also what he’s done as a general manager. And then for him to come back to Detroit -- Ken Holland was a great GM, but Steve coming back really ramped up the accountability in our locker room. We had a great locker room and a great group of guys, but I think everyone was on their toes."
So call it a gut check, especially for Larkin. He's the Red Wings' brightest hope for a brighter future, a star on the rise as of last season. For the first time in his career, Larkin looked like a legitimate No. 1 center. He looked like a stand-out player in a league where it's increasingly hard to stand out. He wanted to take the next step this season, and he wanted to take the Red Wings with him. They both regressed. And there was Yzerman watching it all unfold, his jersey looming from the rafters, his eyes watching from the press box.
"Having him around, getting to learn from him, having great conversations with him about where our team’s at and where we both want it to eventually be, was probably the most valuable thing that I could have had and one of the best things that’s happened in my career," Larkin said.
One of those conversations came before Christmas, around the 30-game mark, Larkin recalled. Nothing was going right. The Red Wings were mired in a 12-game losing streak, their second brutal stretch of the season. And Larkin, after putting up nearly a point per game last season, had 18 points through his first 30 games. He was pressing, desperate to do more. Like a truck spinning its wheels into the mud, he was only making things worse.
Yzerman may have seen some of himself in Larkin, a young player trying to carry a losing team. He spent seven of his first eight seasons on losing teams, despite gaudy personal stats. Yzerman's best efforts weren't enough; in some cases, they may have been too much. So Yzerman told Larkin what he needed to hear.
"I had a conversation with Steve and he said to me, 'You can’t do this all yourself,'" Larkin said. "I kind of took a step back after he said that to me, and I think he was saying it in the most positive way, where I was almost trying too hard and sometimes it was hurting me. Around Christmas time, I took a step back and used my linemates a little more and played a little simpler. Still played hard, but I was playing the right way. That really helped me."
In Detroit's first game after Christmas, Larkin scored a goal and an assist in a 5-4 loss to the Panthers -- a game the Wings should've won. He finished with 31 points in the final 33 games. Aside from Filip Zadina's strong second impression, Larkin's turnaround was perhaps the most important development of the second half of the season. (Filip Hronek's emergence was the biggest story from start to finish.) It was a reminder to Larkin that he can be a star in this league, and proof to Yzerman and the Red Wings that he's not far away.
None of Yzerman's words to Larkin were all that groundbreaking. They didn't need to be. They carried weight because of the source.
"I’ve had conversations with him (about things) that I always knew, but it was good to hear from him that at this point in my career we have guys who need to see (older players) in the gym," Larkin said. "They need to see myself and Luke Glendening and Anthony and Tyler (Bertuzzi) working hard and doing everything we can as professionals to make sure we're in a spot to succeed on the ice. That was something that I tried to work on this year, is making sure I’m always doing the right things and I'm always a good example for the other players."
"I feel (it) in my core," he said, "I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been."
There's a lot on Yzerman's agenda in the months ahead. He has to secure some key pieces of a young nucleus. He has to try to strengthen that nucleus in free agency, without breaking the bank. He has to nail his first pick in a critical draft. He has to map out an offseason that, right now, doesn't include a map. And before next season starts, whenever that may be, Yzerman probably needs to have another conversation with Larkin.
Put yourself back in Larkin's shoes.
How'd you like to be captain of the Red Wings?