Dylan Larkin has a hard time sugar-coating it -- last season sucked for him and the Detroit Red Wings.
It's tough to finish with a minus-122 goal differential and 23 fewer points than any other team. Larkin called it "embarrassing" to be on the first Red Wings team to finish dead last in the standings in 34 years.
"As much as your support system -- your parents, agent, friends, people you turn to for advice -- tell you that it's going to make you stronger, it's going to turn quick," Larkin says. "When you're in the moment of losing every night, and nobody is doing well personally, you feel like it's never going to end, and there's no way out of it."
Larkin kept faith that his GM, Steve Yzerman, had a plan. The offseason was brutally long, thanks to Detroit being one of seven teams not invited to the summer's return-to-play tournament. In August, Larkin said a handful of players returned to Detroit for optional practices, and by September, there were even more. Then came free agency in October, and Yzerman signed five veteran players -- goalie Thomas Greiss, forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan, defensemen Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher -- then traded for longtime New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal.
Larkin was on a text chain with his two linemates, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi. "It was just like, another great player, another great player," Larkin says. "And then Ty texted: Are the Red Wings a wagon now?"
Detroit is probably a bit away from wagon status, but there's a noticeable difference in the Red Wings this season. They split their first four games, but saw momentum halted with five players on the COVID-19 protocol list, and held out of action this weekend in Chicago (where they lost both games). Even still, there's a new swagger to the Red Wings. Detroit's goaltending is far improved (Jonathan Bernier and Greiss have combined for a .904 save percentage, a huge improvement on last season's .886 as a team) and there's more resolve (after being shut out in their opener, Detroit stormed back for a 4-2 win over a talented Hurricanes team in Game 2).
"The blue line -- those guys are always screaming for the puck, they want the puck," Larkin says. "They come to the bench, and they're letting me know, and they're letting guys know that we gotta talk. It makes everyone's life easier and I think that's something we were really missing last year. Those veteran guys who came from other teams have just been emphasizing talking and wanting the puck, and it's made a huge difference."
Larkin, 24, was named captain before the season. The Waterford, Michigan, native was a rookie in 2015-16, the last season of the Red Wings' record 25-year playoff streak. "We had guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Pavel Datsyuk, Justin Abdelkader, guys that were great natural leaders," Larkin says. "Just getting to watch Henrik Zetterberg every day -- how he prepares, how he handled situations in the locker rooms, how he represented himself on the road, I was grateful to be able to experience that, and watch him, and study him. I still speak with him today, but not that much. The first game, I think I took it way too seriously. I had an off night and caught myself looking at my jersey. But what I've learned is I have to stay true to myself and hopefully guys will say I haven't changed much."
One of the best stories in Detroit is Ryan, the 13-year-veteran who is on a one-year, $1 million contract. Ryan took a leave of absence from Ottawa last season to receive treatment for alcohol abuse. Ryan's candor about his struggles and recovery earned him the Bill Masterson Award for perseverance. In Detroit, Ryan became the first player in franchise history to score four goals in his first three appearances with the team.
"Bobby was one of the guys that came to Detroit around August, he's been here a while," Larkin said. "You've got to give him a lot of credit for coming in early to a new city -- at that time there was a lot of uncertainty that the season would even happen -- but he was here, training as hard as ever. He's so skilled, but he's such a great guy, a team-first guy. He loves helping the younger guys, which we have a lot of. Myself, Tyler Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha, Filip Zadina, he loves giving us a little wisdom, pumping us up, sometimes chirping us. He's been such an important addition for us."
It's that young core that the Red Wings are trying to build around, and a shift in attitude was needed to make sure things didn't spiral out of control.
"I do believe the guys from last year, we all took it personally," Larkin says. "We all went home in the summer, we all trained as hard as we could to make sure that didn't happen again. It's embarrassing for us. We're lucky enough to play for the Red Wings, to represent the winged wheel, with all of the history behind it. We didn't want to get to a point where we were losing and OK with it."
As for his personal goals this season?
"I wanted to take a step in my career, which would help our team take a step forward," he said. "I wanted to be at the end of the year -- not winning the Selke Trophy, but be in the conversation for it, or in the conversation as one of the underrated guys in this league."
After talking to Larkin, it was hard not to draw comparisons to my conversation last week with Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and the potential similarities from Colorado's rise to what Detroit is hoping to accomplish. Landeskog was on the 2016-17 Avs team that had an NHL-low 48 points, but dropped to No. 4 in the draft lottery (though it landed them Cale Makar). Things started to fall in place after that. Colorado hasn't missed the playoffs since, and opened this season as Stanley Cup favorites.
The Red Wings also fell to No. 4 in the 2020 draft lottery (they selected Swedish winger Lucas Raymond). Could they engineer as swift of a turnaround?
Yzerman has been careful not to assign a timeline to the Red Wings' rebuild, but I asked Larkin how far away he feels his team is from contending.
"It's such a fine line in our league from winning and losing," Larkin says. "I can't really say how far away we are, but it's exciting to see the first couple games where we're competitive. Through the first four games there's been a positive feeling, even after losses, that we were in the game. Last year we didn't have that feeling, it was a hopeless feeling. So if we get off to a good start here, you never know what could happen."
Emptying the notebook
Daniel Carcillo's activism in his post-playing career has been well-documented, but his new venture is perhaps his most fascinating yet: CEO and founder of a psychedelic medicine company. Some backstory:
Carcillo, the former NHL enforcer, retired in 2015 after seven diagnosed concussions (although he believes he had far more). As Carcillo, 35, became a face of the NHL brain-trauma lawsuit brought by former players, he struggled. His symptomatology -- light sensitivity, slurred speech, insomnia and head pressure -- was "really bad." So was his anxiety and depression. "Hopelessness starts to creep in," he says. "That's when suicidal thoughts creep in, and I felt like I was hurting everybody around me and I started to lose hope."
No matter how many doctors he saw, his blood work and qEEG scans kept showing abnormalities. "Nothing was validated," Carcillo says. "And nothing was giving me any meaningful advances in my recovery."
Carcillo posted about his struggles on social media and in 2019, a former teammate reached out inviting him to a farm to learn more about CBD and psilocybin. At the end of the trip, Carcillo was surprised with a psilocybin ceremony. "It changed my life," he says. "It stimulated my brain. It did all of the things that the concussion clinics were supposed to do for me. And it was a natural form of medicine."
Carcillo went home with a maintenance dose and noticed all of his symptoms began lessening, or fading away completely. He slept better. He had better impulse control. And his blood work revealed that his testosterone equalized, while his stress levels were "totally normal."
Six months later, he stopped all of his other treatments and uses only micro-doses of psilocybin mushrooms. He then received his first brain scan with no abnormalities in five years. "It's not a miracle drug, but it is a medicine that can help you create good habits, which you can sustain as long as you do the work." Carcillo says. "I dove in head-first, and started to do outreach, and met some people in the clinical space."
Which leads us to now: Carcillo is founder and CEO of Wesana Health, which is "committed to patient empowerment and the advancement of psilocybin-based medicine." (The name of the company combines "we" with "sana," which is Latin for heal.)
Last week, Wesana announced it had closed on $4 million in funding. The next steps: filing regulatory applications with Investigational New Drug (IND), the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Investigational Medicinal Product Dossier (IMPD), as well as with Health Canada.
On Friday, Carcillo said he had a "great chat" with the NHLPA Alumni Association. "I know this is something that can help former players," Carcillo says. "And I know there's something we can do right now that they can take advantage of. I think those conversations are going really well."
Given his platform, Carcillo hopes to include other professional athletes to be part of Wesana's clinical trials. But he also wants as many demographics as possible, and is working on outreach to veterans and survivors of domestic violence, or anyone with traumatic brain injury (TBI) or who has experienced trauma. He knows it's not always an easy sell.
"It's a heavily stigmatized medicine," Carcillo says. 'Because of where it's scheduled, because of the war on drugs the government initiated."
But Wesana is banking on a societal shift. "I think we'll see a big change in the next two to three years of how the market perceives this," said Chad Bronstein, the executive chairman of Wesana's board. "And I don't think it will be so much thought of as magic mushrooms, I think it will be thought of as medicine."
As for how the NHL community will perceive his venture?
"Hockey is an interesting one, because they are the last league to admit there is a problem," Carcillo says. "So are they going to be part of the solution? I've had some great conversations so far with the NHLPA alumni, and I'm going to present the science, and the data, and my story I've collected. Then I'll let them make a decision."
Three stars of the week
Tyler Toffoli, RW, Montreal Canadiens
Few teams are off to a hotter start than the Canadiens as GM Marc Bergevin's offseason moves all seem to be hits. One of them is Toffoli, who had five goals and three assists in three games against the Canucks this past week. Thanks to 2021 NHL schedule wonkiness, we also get a crazy stat like this: Toffoli is the first player in NHL history to score each of his first five goals with a franchise against his previous team (the Canucks, in his case).
Semyon Varlamov, G, New York Islanders
While it's easy to get excited about rookie Ilya Sorokin, it's clear that Varlamov still has a slight edge in the platoon. The 32-year-old has been sensational this season, including shutouts in his first two games. In two wins this week, he stopped 57 of 58 shots (.983 save percentage).
Marc-Andre Fleury, G, Vegas Golden Knights
To the surprise of no one, the Knights are rolling over the West Division thus far, to the tune of a 5-1-0 record. Fleury has won all three of his starts, with a 1.00 goals-against average and .951 save percentage; that includes a 5-2 win over Arizona on Wednesday, and a 16-save shutout of the Yotes on Sunday.
What we liked this week
1. I love the question posed by Kris Versteeg on Instagram: Who lasts longer in Columbus, John Tortorella or Patrik Laine? (Both the coach and winger have contracts expiring this summer). The Blue Jackets and Jets swapped disgruntled stars -- probably as close as our league will come to a NBA-style blockbuster -- and it's a deal that heavily favored the Blue Jackets, in my view.
We already know Laine is an elite goal scorer (since the 22-year-old debuted in 2016-17, only eight players have scored more goals than his 140). Pierre-Luc Dubois should be viewed as a future No. 1 center and does give Winnipeg much-needed depth at the position, but he hasn't proved it yet. Plus, Columbus snags a hometown boy, Jack Roslovic, who could be a sneaky-good player for a team always looking for forward depth. If Jarmo Kekalainen can get Laine signed after this season, this is a home run trade for the Jackets.
2. I liked Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler's candor when talking about why things didn't work out with Laine. "Looking in the past, as a young player I certainly had a lot of habits and things I needed to overcome. So, maybe I could have communicated a little better instead of just getting frustrated. ... Never once was I hard on Patty, far from it. If anything, I was very respectful and coddled a teenager and a young 20-year-old. I don't regret that, but sometimes I wish instead of my instinct to get frustrated and maybe not say anything, maybe if I could have communicated better, maybe it would have made things better."
3. Once more, for emphasis: the Minnesota Wild are fun to watch again
Kirill Kaprizov goes for the between-the-legs shot. What a gem. pic.twitter.com/diDhkXD4NZ— Ryan Quigley (@TheRyanQuigley) January 23, 2021
4. So the Dallas Stars start their season 10 days after everybody else because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. They're going to be without Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop for a few months. They return essentially the same roster otherwise -- but it's the same team that started last season on a dreadful 1-7-1 run. I expected them to look disjointed in their Friday night opener against the Predators.
Instead? A dominant 7-0 win in which Dallas was a sizzling 5-for-8 on the power play. And yet the star of this game, to me, was beloved playoff 2020 hero Anton Khudobin, who recorded the 34-save shutout.
"He gave us a good chance in the beginning," Alexander Radulov said. "That's basically why we were 0-0 in the first period. They came out pretty hard and we could feel that they had some games already. That was the difference. Dobby did his job and he deserved the shutout. He was there for us tonight." After five power-play goals, and one short-handed goal, Joe Pavelski wanted to talk only about the goaltender: "The best thing on the special teams tonight was probably Dobby," Pavelski said. "He was huge."
5. What's better than scoring your first NHL goal? Scoring No. 2 and No. 3 in the same game. Pius Suter is the reigning Swiss League scoring champ, and could just be the next Blackhawks European diamond-in-the-rough free-agent success story (following Dominik Kubalik, Artemi Panarin, Erik Gustafsson, Dominik Kahun, Jan Rutta and Michal Kempny).
🧢🧢🧢🧢HAT TRICK ALERT 🧢🧢🧢🧢🧢— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) January 24, 2021
Congrats Pius Suter on your first NHL HAT TRICK! pic.twitter.com/kNqnHrEPq8
What we didn't like this week
1. Let's talk about the Washington Capitals' situation, with the team being fined $100,000 for violating COVID-19 protocols, which also forced four players (headlined by Alex Ovechkin) to miss at least four games because they socialized in a hotel room, without masks. As I talked to a few people around the league, there was one overwhelming sentiment, summed up here by a veteran player: "I think it's pretty clear the league wants to use the Caps as an example. It's them saying everyone should be on notice."
Ovechkin's wife, Nastya, pointed to some contradictions. It does feel a bit absurd we are allowing players to sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the bench, hug after goals and gather in the locker room, but not be able to spend time in each other's hotel rooms while on a team-sanctioned road trip (while teams are also required to be at the same hotel, so the NHL can monitor quality control). Players talked about how isolated they felt in the bubble this past summer and how it affected their mental health -- and I wish we would have taken into account how these restrictions might take a toll on some players over the course of the season. It's a story I'll definitely be monitoring.
However, most folks around the league will argue that the 2021 protocols were jointly negotiated by the league and the players union. While it might feel authoritarian -- and the protocols are much more restrictive than those with which the NBA started its season, for example -- the rules are the rules, and all players who agreed to play this season essentially signed off on them. I did like how Peter Laviolette, in his first year as Capitals coach, addressed the situation. "We want to be compliant, and we made a mistake, and we need to do a better job," the coach told reporters the day after the punishment was handed out. "Honestly, even I made a mistake. I dropped my mask. It was out there at the end of [a recent game] in the celebration. I've got to do a better job, too. It's a learning lesson for everybody, because it is real stuff that we're talking about. We don't take it lightly. We're trying to be 100 percent compliant, and yet, when you make a mistake, it can be costly."
2. As much as I want to root for Jack Johnson, when he signed a $1.15 million contract with the New York Rangers this October, it was as close as I've experienced to seeing a mistake unravel in real time. His pairing with Tony DeAngelo, so far, has been a disaster. After Friday night's overtime loss to the Penguins, the Rangers had been outscored 4-0 at 5-on-5 with Johnson and DeAngelo on the ice. When they were off? New York outscored opponents 7-1 at even strength.
3. It was a rough week for Blake Coleman. He spent two days on the COVID-19 protocol list (missing only practices, not games), scored on Thursday against the Blue Jackets, then was a late scratch on Saturday after being late for a team meeting. "Blake is an A-plus kid, and I don't know if he had alarm clock issues or what happened," coach Jon Cooper said. "We have some pretty steadfast rules that we've had in place ever since I've been here. Nobody feels worse than that poor kid because he's given everything he's had for us, and that's not his style, but he completely understood, and we'll be back at practice on Monday."
Best games on tap this week
Note: All times Eastern
Tuesday Jan. 26: St. Louis Blues at Vegas Golden Knights, 9 p.m. (ESPN+)
Two heavyweights in the West kick off a two-game series, and I'll be glued in. Nice to see Torey Krug get his first goal with the Blues last week, and this also is the first game with Golden Knights blueliner Alex Pietrangelo taking on the team for whom he used to be captain. Another defenseman to watch is Zach Whitecloud. The 24-year-old looks confident and you can make an argument he has been the Golden Knights' best defenseman this season. Look at this ridiculous save Whitecloud made this past week:
Whitecloud is better in the crease than San Jose's goalies.#GoKnightsGo#VegasBorn#GoldenKnights@GoldenKnights pic.twitter.com/rjjbhdcDRz— The Gilded Jester (@TheGildedJester) January 21, 2021
Thursday, Jan. 28: Columbus Blue Jackets at Florida Panthers, 7 p.m.
A couple fun storylines in this one. Sergei Bobrovsky versus his former team. Plus, Patrik Laine against his good friend Aleksander Barkov. When the series kicks off Tuesday (two days earlier), it will be Florida's first game in a week, thanks to COVID-19 postponements.
Sat. Jan 30: Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. (ESPN+)
Here we go. The first of eight matchups between Zdeno Chara and his former team. "Playing against him is going to be crazy, it's going to be really weird seeing him line up on the other side," Chara's former defensive partner Charlie McAvoy told me recently. "But I'll be the first one to go find him after the game and give him a big hug."
Social media post of the week
Per Flyers PR guru Zack Hill, Oskar Lindblom asked if he could wear a cancer ribbon sticker on his helmet tonight and for the rest of the season. The league approved his request. Very cool. pic.twitter.com/X7Uv4ARsqo— Jordan Hall (@JHallNBCS) January 24, 2021