At the outset of this season, Jeff Blashill made his intentions clear with Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi. He said "they're a pair I'd like to keep together all season." You saw why when they combined for five goals on opening night.
It was clear before then, of course. Larkin and Bertuzzi have always played well as a duo, better with each other than without. Blashill had the same plan last season until Bertuzzi went down for the year with a back injury. Larkin went from seven points in nine games with Bertuzzi, to the worst offensive season of his career without him.
"Tyler and Dylan complement each other," Blashill said in October. "They have real good chemistry on and off the ice, so it’s definitely a pair I’d like to see stay together. And then we’re looking to see who earns the spot with them, and that will be determined over time."
That spot was earned by Lucas Raymond. It was determined rather quickly in training camp, then solidified in the preseason when the rookie winger kept pace with Detroit's two best offensive players. They thrived as a trio for the first three months of the season, producing offense at a rate that rivaled the best lines in hockey. They are Detroit's three leading scorers and it's not all that close.
Two games ago, Blashill broke them up. In an effort to create more balanced offense in the top six, he dropped Bertuzzi to the second line with Pius Suter and Robby Fabbri and elevated Vladislav Namestnikov to the first with Larkin and Raymond. He did this, in part, because Namestnikov is having a strong year and because "he's a smart player who can do a lot of things ... so I felt confident that that line could continue to do a good job," Blashill said.
He may never have considered it if not for Raymond, who has compelled the coach to change.
"I also felt, the level at which Lucas Raymond has played helps allow that," Blashill said. "At the beginning of the year, I would have said that I wasn’t going to break up Bert and Larks. But now that Lucas has done a really good job, it puts you in a spot where you have a chance to potentially balance and have two lines that can really be effective.
"And then thirdly, the impact Bert can have on the lineup. I think it instantly makes that Suter line much more dangerous. Now if I’m an opposing coach, I gotta worry about two dangerous lines, and that’s a positive thing for us."
The Red Wings are 2-0 since the shuffle, albeit in two games against the Sabres. All the forwards involved have produced, led by Bertuzzi and Larkin with four points apiece. But the key figure here is Raymond, especially in regard to Larkin's resurgence.
The Wings captain already has twice as many goals as he had last season, to go with the best point-per-game pace of his career. Raymond has assists on eight of Larkin's 18 goals, including six primary assists, and he's had a hand in 22 of Larkin's 36 points. Bertuzzi has assisted on one of Larkin's goals and had a hand in 12 of his points.
Raymond has made the duo separable, and made the Red Wings better. When the NHL named the Last Men In candidates for the 2022 All-Star Game, Raymond's name was listed alongside Atlantic Division contemporaries like Stamkos, Tavares and Barkov. The vote eventually went to Stamkos, but here was a snapshot of where the Red Wings' rookie could be headed.
"He’s certainly played well enough to be in that consideration with the other good players in the league," Blashill said. "He’s put himself in the conversation and that’s good for him -- and us."
Where Raymond goes from here is up to him. He has the inside track for the Calder Trophy, so long as he's not passed by teammate Moritz Seider (or Trevor Zegras of the Ducks). From a wider view, he's on the path toward a long and successful career in the NHL. He's already changed his coach and his team for the better. In time, he can help change the franchise.
"It’s a relentless league where you have to prove (yourself) day in and day out and year in and year out, and the very best players are great every year," said Blashill. "What I would tell you is that Lucas is very smart, very competitive and he’s got a good maturity to him with a really good skillset. That’s a really good package to be a good player, and in my opinion, a winning player. I think the organization is in a better spot to win long term with Lucas Raymond on our team."