As the NHL’s most important restricted free agent left unsigned a week into August, Dylan Larkin’s five-year, $30.5-million deal with the Detroit Red Wings Friday should come as a relief to both the player and the franchise.
Here are five things to take away from the contract and the comments made by Larkin and GM Ken Holland in its wake. One for every year.
Detroit’s cap issues could be solved by a timely retirement
If the 2018-19 season were to open today, the Red Wings would not be compliant with the salary cap.
“With this deal, we’re probably a dribble over,” said Holland, who estimates that dribble to be in the ballpark of $1 million, depending which players make the cut.
Holland joins Wings fans in their anxiety over captain Henrik Zetterberg’s health. Zetterberg, 37, still has three more seasons at a $6.08 million hit, but because he signed a back-diving contract, he’s only slated to take home $5.35 million total in real money over that span.
Not that Zetterberg’s poor health is being fabricated, but we won’t blame you if you draw a parallel to Marian Hossa’s retirement in cap-strapped Chicago a year ago.
Zetterberg essentially didn’t practice the last two-and-a-half months of 2017-18. He only played games. Holland has spoken with Zetterberg’s agent numerous times over the off-season and is curious to see if his captain is good to go in September.
“I know he’s had a tough summer. [He] hasn’t been able to train anywhere near as close to what he’s been able to train the past summers due to his back,” Holland said.
“So there’s a real unknown with Henrik Zetterberg.”
If Zetterberg can play — which is Holland’s preference — then the $1 million cap overage is “a workable number,” he said.
Larkin believes Zetterberg would play through pain if it meant improving the Red Wings.
“He’s going to help our team no matter what — if he’s playing on one leg or whatever,” Larkin said. “He’s, I think, the best player on our team, so it would definitely hurt losing him, but he does have to look after his future.”
Detroit is placing a premium on youth
Holland used the word rebuild in discussing the critical re-signing of Larkin, and he’s wise to go long-term with his best young player, avoiding, say, the RFA awkwardness (disaster?) that struck Ottawa with Mark Stone, who was only signed to one year.
Having successfully transitioned from wing to centre, Larkin is one to build around, while a trio of thi summer’s other young RFA forwards — Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi — were only given one- or two-year deals.
“We all felt there’s more to give, there’s more to come. That’s why you do a short-term deal. I can’t pay off speculation, and a player doesn’t want to sign a long-term deal too early on and outperform that deal significantly,” Holland explained.
“We’re going younger. We’re trying to rebuild it.”
Holland said more spots will be there for the taking at training camp if prospects can earn them (think: 2018 first-round find Filip Zadina).
After enduring a contract dispute with Athanasiou last fall that dragged weeks into the season, there was urgency on both Larkin and the Wings to get something settled this month.
“Players are coming into town,” Holland said. “Dylan wants to be in the locker room and be signed and be part of the group versus be a distraction.”
Larkin appears poised to become the next Red Wings captain
Granted it wouldn’t happen until Zetterberg retires, but Larkin could eventually inherit a C that has only been worn by three men over the past 32 years: Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Zetterberg:
“They really led by example. When it was time to say something, they stood up and said what needed to be said,” said Holland. “He’s slowly becoming that young player who has those leadership qualities in him. We’ll see where it goes.”
The GM touted his centre’s intangibles: Larkin’s “big motor,” his boundless passion for the game, his determination.
Holland was impressed that already this off-season, Larkin jumped at the chance to compete in the worlds, ran his own hockey school, and traveled to Toronto for this week’s Power Edge Pro camp, training alongside Connor McDavid.
“He loves to be at a rink,” Holland said. “I think as he goes along here, he’s going to score a little more.”
“I want to drive the bus,” he asserted.
An emotional tug was at play
Considering Larkin is the franchise’s No. 1 centre for the foreseeable future, it’s reasonable to think he could’ve pushed negotiations to squeeze more than a $6.1-million average annual salary out of the franchise. Larkin led the club in scoring, and yet he took one less year and $500,000 less (total) than fellow RFA forward Tom Wilson signed for this summer.
But there’s a hometown-boy-does-good angle here. Born and raised in nearby Waterford, Mich., Larkin felt a swell of pride Friday knowing he’s be playing for his NHL city for at least five more years.
“I feel like I just made the team all over again. My phone is blowing up,” he said. “I feel pretty emotional about it right now. I got a lot of texts today, a lot of congratulations.
“My parents are now starting to get sick of going to games. They said they’d never be like that,” he joked. “It’s special.”
Larkin acknowledges there’ll be more pressure now that he’s the franchise’s highest-paid player — but that pressure will be self-imposed as he tries to return a lottery team back into Cup contention.
There’s a feeling Larkin knows he could’ve squeezed out a little more.
“I hope as the salary cap goes up [my contract] does allow us to add more pieces and we can be a Cup contender soon,” Larkin said. “This money is life-changing.”
Larkin, who was advised by agents Kurt Overhardt and Joe Oliver, explained the five-year term as a chance to maximize the return on his career.
“It’s a chance to have another contract when you’re in your prime,” said Larkin, who will be 27 when this one expires.
John Tavares is 27.
“It’s not by any means I’m five years then hit the open market.”
The $30.5 million will be well spent, just not on a fancy basement
Larkin, a.k.a. YouTube star D-Boss, delivered d-best quote of the conference call when asked if he’d splurge on anything with his newfound fortune.
“My parents just redid the dungeon. Maybe I’ll get a house with an unfinished basement so I can shoot pucks down there.”