With skills, mindset for today's NHL, Larkin already blossoming in Detroit

Larkin: 'You have to pinch yourself once in a while' (2:28)

Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin discusses getting to meet and sign an autograph for Detroit legend Ted Lindsay, playing for his hometown team and his reaction when he found out he was selected to play in the All-Star Game. (2:28)

DETROIT -- Putting a value on intangibles can be a dangerous proposition, especially when evaluating high-end draft picks.

We can all agree that Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is a great leader. He's worth considerably more than the 60-70 points he puts up every season.

But how is that quantified? How does a general manager make sure a franchise-changer like Toews doesn't slip to No. 3 overall next time he's available? The answer is, you look for signs of an invisible will that complements the skill set that is a prerequisite for success.

For the Detroit Red Wings, one of the first inclinations a local teenager they were scouting closely might have possessed that rare drive for greatness came in Finland, during the 2014 U-18 World Championships.

In Dylan Larkin's second game of the tournament -- the first in front of his parents, who made the long trip from Michigan to see him play -- he took a hit from the Czech Republic's David Pastrnak that separated Larkin's shoulder.

His initial reaction was to tell coaches there was nothing wrong.

"We're like, 'Right,' " USA Hockey coach Danton Cole said.

Larkin powered through against the Czechs in that game, but Cole had the task of letting his young forward know he was sitting out the next game. "I thought he was going to kill me," Cole said.

Playing essentially with one working arm, Larkin returned to the tournament and remained a force on the ice. Against Sweden, he was tasked with containing the dangerous William Nylander, which he did to the coaching staff's satisfaction.

In the end, the Americans won a gold medal in part because of the gutsy effort turned in by Larkin.

"It was nothing we didn't know about him, but maybe it showed some of the people on the outside," Cole said.

The Red Wings certainly noticed.

"He was still as tenacious and aggressive on the puck as he is now," Red Wings director of player development Jiri Fischer said. "Seventeen-year-olds don't normally do that."

That drive and character showed itself in other situations, too.

The U.S. national team development program gives its players a manual to aid their summer training. It has workouts in it, and articles and sayings and information from the team's sports psychologists. There are a few rules and system details jammed in there.

Some players leave it in their dressing-room stalls, and the coaching staff has to overnight it to them as a reminder of its importance.

When Larkin was in Ann Arbor, that wasn't the case. Coaches noticed he always had that manual with him in the summer. It was by his side, dog-eared and full of notes.

So when Larkin spent last summer working out with Red Wings teammates Luke Glendening and Riley Sheahan despite an hour-plus drive from home every morning, no one who knew him well was surprised.

That's what Larkin does, he is relentlessly trying to make incremental improvements.

As the 2014 draft approached, the Red Wings very much had their minds made up. They were so convinced they wanted Larkin that the one pre-draft interview they had with him was bland, generic Q-and-A session, so as to avoid tipping him off. The franchise that has unearthed stars from small towns in Sweden and Russia wasn't going to miss one coming up in their backyard.

It was enough of a misdirection that the kid who grew up wearing No. 19 in honor of Steve Yzerman had doubts his hometown team was even interested. He thought maybe the Winnipeg Jets would be the destination based on all of the pre-draft interviews, but they grabbed Nik Ehlers at No. 9.

The week of the draft, the Anaheim Ducks interviewed Larkin every day.

"Wednesday, Thursday, Friday they brought him," said Larkin's dad Kevin, a former soccer player who grew up in Toronto. Instead, the Ducks grabbed Nick Ritchie at No. 10.

As the Detroit pick got closer, the Larkin family started the countdown as Arizona, Washington and Dallas all went another direction. At No. 15, Red Wings GM Ken Holland took the stage in Philadelphia.

The moment he said the words, "from Waterford, Michigan," Larkin's mom squeezed his leg. It was happening.

"When they were walking up to the stage, I had a feeling," Larkin said. "I was hoping."

Historically, most of Detroit's draft-day steals are found in the later rounds. Larkin is turning out to be a steal in the top 15 overall.

There's an argument to be made that the 19-year-old Larkin is the most impressive Detroit rookie since Yzerman. He's the rare teenager on the Red Wings' roster and, even more rare, will be representing the Red Wings in the coming All-Star Game in Nashville, Tennessee.

"Right from Game 1, he's been a legitimate top-six forward on the Detroit Red Wings. He's earned every minute he plays," Holland said. "There's some nights he's been our best forward. Those nights he's not our best forward, or one of our best forwards, he's a very important player."

Among rookies, Larkin trails only Artemi Panarin with 15 goals and 33 points. He is a plus-24, far and away better than any other rookie forward and equal in that category with NHL scoring leader Patrick Kane.

He has done it by deferring to nobody.

Sometimes in Detroit, a young player comes in and respectfully tries to feed Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg the puck. Larkin has maintained respect for the Red Wings' veterans, but if the right play is for him to shoot it, he's shooting it.

Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill noticed that mindset immediately when Larkin showed up to play for Blashill and Grand Rapids in the Calder Cup playoffs last spring after competing in the World Championships.

"He was playing with Teemu Pulkkinen, who tore up the American League last year. He was in the offensive zone and had a chance to force a pass to Pulkkinen," Blashill said. "Instead, he made what he thought was the best play."

Same thing with Zetterberg.

"He doesn't just pass to Z because Z is Z. He's only passed when he thought it was the right thing to do," Blashill said. "That to me showed a huge maturity and huge confidence level. I don't think you can have success as a young player if you're deferring to guys all the time."

That Calder Cup performance was the first inkling for Blashill that he wanted to keep Larkin around in Detroit this season, and that feeling became more prominent during the preseason.

It's hard to get a read on young players during preseason games, so Blashill made sure to always play Larkin against NHL players, sending him over the boards against Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The message from Holland was that if Detroit was keeping this guy on the roster, he had to play a prominent role. Blashill tested Larkin as much as he could.

"He did a really good job of having an impact in each game he played," Blashill said. That impact has continued.

Blashill, like any good coach, is quick to point out there's plenty of room for growth out of Larkin. There's still work to be done in terms of stopping in the right spot structurally in the Red Wings' own zone to help prevent scoring chances. There are more times when he can stop on pucks and engage in battles. There's still the odd turnover that comes with a forced pass on a play that isn't there.

The Red Wings keep an internal plus/minus stat that tracks scoring chances players creating compared to how many they're giving up, and Larkin is not on the same level with Datsyuk and Zetterberg just yet.

"He's at a rate where he's giving up too many [scoring chances]," Blashill said. "We want to get him back to that low total."

But through 48 games, Larkin is showing signs he's growing into a player with a skill set perfect for the modern game. Structure and speed are so important in today's NHL, and Larkin was raised to play the game with speed and to move the puck with quick passing rather than skating.

Former Red Wings player Doug Brown shaped Larkin's game as a young player on the powerhouse Belle Tire youth team, and Brown equates Larkin to a really bright quarterback.

"You have to be calm, take the hit and keep the play moving. If you can get it downfield fast, get it downfield fast. If you have to hit the tight end, hit the tight end. But move it, move it to the open player," Brown said. "Dylan's dad was a collegiate soccer player, they grasp the importance of touching the puck and moving it."

Brown's conclusion is that Larkin's combination of smarts, speed and will to improve creates a limitless potential.

"Don't put a ceiling on Dylan Larkin," Brown said. "He is a great player for the modern game."

It's an opinion echoed by those outside the Larkin circle. Former Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards won a bronze medal with Larkin at the World Championships in Prague.

"The first thing I noticed right away was his speed, his skating ability," Richards said. "He's always skating. His motor is always running. He doesn't slow down."

That mix of speed and offensive production has shifted Larkin from a guy the management team for Team North America planned to monitor for World Cup inclusion to one who is now among the favorites to earn a roster spot.

"We have a lot of positive viewings on him. A lot of them," said Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, who is in charge of constructing the Team North America roster. "He's firmly on the radar."

And he's firmly on the radar of the sports landscape in Detroit. Despite its Hockeytown moniker, Detroit is a competitive sports market in which the Red Wings get squeezed in alongside offseason talk about the Lions and Tigers. Typically, it's not until playoff time that the Red Wings capture the imagination of the local sports fans.

The emergence of a potential teenaged hockey star has changed that this year.

After a long trip West, Larkin spent an off day in nearby Plymouth to take in a U-17 Team USA development program game on what was being promoted as "Dylan Larkin Night." Kids lined up to put their ticket stubs into a drawing to meet Larkin. Posters of Larkin in Team USA, University of Michigan and Red Wings gear were handed out at the door.

As he sat in a center ice suite, a row of teenagers spent more time turned backward looking for Larkin and taking camera pictures than they did watching the Americans take on Muskegon. When he left his suite, he was mobbed by kids.

"I think people went there and knew I was going to be there so I got recognized a bit more. It's not an everyday thing," he said, brushing it off. "It's cool. It's something I'm taking in stride."

A few days later, Larkin was the last player off the ice after practice, as is usually the case. The Red Wings dressing room was all but empty, with Larkin politely working his way through an interview despite not wanting to hold up a waiting teammate.

In walked former Red Wing Ted Lindsay, the 90-year-old Hall of Famer.

Larkin jumped to his feet, walked to the center of the dressing room and said hello. He received a few words of encouragement on his play this season from Terrible Ted, who then handed Larkin a card for an autograph.

Besides the four Stanley Cups in the 1950s, 11 All-Star games, an Art Ross Trophy and the massive age difference, Lindsay was no different than the kids in Plymouth.

He was just looking for a moment with the next Red Wings star.