What's a fair contract for Dylan Larkin? And will the Red Wings give it to him?


Dylan Larkin notched a point in his sixth straight game in the Red Wings' 3-2 win over the Golden Knights on Thursday, a couple hours after it was reported that he and the team 'remain far apart' in negotiations on a new contract. It's rare that anything leaks out in Detroit under Steve Yzerman, so perhaps this is just posturing by those on the other side of the table. The Wings' latest offer was apparently 'not received well' by Larkin's camp.

Either way, the report rings true: were Larkin and the Red Wings close to reaching an agreement, you get the sense they would have actually agreed by now.

Detroit wants to keep its captain, and its captain wants to stay in Detroit. That much seems clear. The Michigan native has been the Red Wings' best player from the moment Henrik Zetterberg retired five years ago. Larkin's value to the team is glaringly evident whenever he's not on the ice, like last month in Minnesota when the Wings wilted without him. Less clear is his value relative to the rest of the NHL.

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Larkin has 110 points in 114 games over the last two seasons, the two best of his career. That's high-end production. Is it elite? Not quite. It's actually on the lower end by the standards of a No. 1 center: Larkin's 0.96 points per game over this stretch ranks 23rd in the NHL among players at his position. He is a really good player, bordering on great, who's exceedingly important to his team.

Thus the dilemma: If the Wings fail to extend Larkin, who's set to be a free agent this summer, you can kick their rebuild another two to three years down the road. (You aren't improving your current team in any trade.) If they pay him more than he's worth, the rebuild will eventually hit a wall.

So, what's he worth? We can agree he's not worth double-digit millions per year. That's reserved for the best centers in the world. Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon lead the way at $12.5 million per year, followed by the $10-million-per-year likes of Alexsander Barkov, Jack Eichel and Anze Kopitar. Below them, you'll find stars like Brayden Point ($9.5) and the $8.5 million-per-year likes of Mika Zibanejad, Steven Stamkos and Leon Draisaitl, all three of whom are signed for eight years, $68 million. (Draisaitl signed his deal well before he became a perennial MVP candidate.) This is closer to Larkin's range.

And it's likely what Larkin and his powerful agent Pat Brisson are seeking. It's a fair ask, if for no other reason than Larkin, who turns 27 this summer, would command as much on the open market. It's also fair for Yzerman to offer less. Draisaitl and Stamkos aside, Larkin is not on the same level as Zibanejad, a 40-goal scorer who had put up 1.02 points per game in the three seasons prior to signing his extension last October. Larkin over the last three seasons has put up 0.84 points per game.

The Sharks were in a similar predicament last March with homegrown center Tomas Hertl. He had put up 0.87 points per game in the prior three seasons and was headed toward free agency at the age of 28, on a team building (or trying to build) for the future. Shortly before the trade deadline, the Sharks locked him up with an eight-year, $65 million extension. Hertl has 41 points in 44 games this season; Larkin has 41 in 43. Maybe $8 million per year is the magic number for Larkin and the Red Wings. Eight years is the max term.

Yzerman's perspective is interesting here. He's always thinking a couple years ahead. When he looks at Larkin, you wonder if he sees more of a No. 2 center on the team he's trying to build -- a Cup contender -- than a No. 1 center on the team he has now. Yzerman knows what a true No. 1 looks like because he watched Steven Stamkos for all those years in Tampa and signed him for close to a top-dollar contract in 2016. Larkin, obviously, would rather be paid like the player he already is. Yzerman might be inclined to pay him like the player he'll be when the Wings are ready to win.

Here's the problem: Yzerman already paid Andrew Copp like a No. 2 center on a Cup contender last summer, $5.6 million per year over five years. Larkin, by comparison, is easily worth $8-plus million per year as a No. 1. One thing would seem to work in both Larkin's and Detroit's favor: the NHL salary cap is projected to increase considerably in the years ahead, from $82.5 million this season to approximately $92 million in 2025-26. If that holds true, $8.5 million per year for Larkin would look pretty good for the Wings right around the time they should be actual contenders in the East.

At the risk of tangling lines, Lions GM Brad Holmes recently said something about Jared Goff that applies to the Red Wings and Larkin: "It’s a lot easier to get worse at quarterback than to get better at quarterback in this league." In the NHL, so it goes with a No. 1 center. Not every team gets a McDavid or a MacKinnon. Larkin, whose game continues to grow, feels like the best No. 1 center the Red Wings will find, beyond trading for one (good luck) or signing one in free agency (do they ever even get there?).

You never, ever know with Yzerman, who could turn around and trade Larkin tomorrow. But he's got a really good player on his hands at the game's most important position, even if he's not one of the game's best. If the Wings have visions of contending in the near future -- and Yzerman spent last summer like they do -- it's hard to see how they get there without Larkin leading the way. Eight years, $66 million: who says no?

Featured Image Photo Credit: Claus Andersen / Stringer