Larkin's injury tough blow for Detroit Red Wings and not for the obvious reason

As the Red Wings hunt for a playoff spot, losing their best forward for an estimated two weeks creates a hole. But it likely also puts a crimp in the team's quest for an identity.
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Ouch. Of course, the injury to captain Dylan Larkin as the Detroit Red Wings hunt for their first playoff berth since 2016 is painful. The fleet center is the Red Wings' best forward, no question.

“He’s great down the middle and by far our most-minutes guy," Detroit coach Derek Lalonde said Monday in announcing Larkin's expected two-week absence because of a lower-body injury. "He’s one of the only guys who plays in all three situations. He’s a driver for us.”

So, Joe Veleno, a fourth-year NHL player, steps in to center the top line. Like Larkin, Veleno has the speed to forecheck and keep up with opponents' top centers. He claims he's confident and will just try to continue playing "his game" and get the puck to his wings, Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, two of the Red Wings' most gifted offensive forces.

"... I’m definitely going to try to be strong on pucks, win some battles," Veleno said. "Just going to keep building and playing the right way,” he said. “Try to earn as much trust as I can get.”

When coaches and players talk about playing 'their game,' it's another way to define their team's identity.

Losing Larkin during a push for a playoff spot is an obvious challenge. Most teams will find it hard to overcome the loss of a top-line, two-way performer. But Larkin's injury also creates another obstacle: For the first time since the Mike Babcock era, the Red Wings were beginning to develop an identity. Foes were beginning to plan to face a team with offensive depth, an uncanny determination (11 wins after trailing in the third period), and, seemingly, a strong turn toward a more complete defensive effort. Call it Detroit's three D's: depth, determination and defense.

Not always perfect in this quest for identity, of course. Some flaws still exist. There's often a lack of discipline (another "D" element). Poor line changes, careless puck management, and soft play in front and in the corners in the defensive zone. But the team's best players appeared to accept this concept of team identity, and Larkin, the captain, is among them. He's having a splendid season, with a team-best 26 games and 54 points in 55 games. He's also been solid defensively.

You might ask, now, why is an identity important? Remember how consistently good the Red Wings were under coaches Scotty Bowman and then Babcock? There was a "structure" to their play under each coach, a structure that disappeared under Jeff Blashill and that has been slow to emerge under Lalonde.

Team identity is not important, you say? Well, let's offer the case of the Florida Panthers, arguably the NHL's best team this season. In 2021-22, the Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy with 58 wins and a league-best 340 goals. But Florida was eliminated in the second round, swept by intrastate rival Tampa Bay, with the Lightning shutting down the Panthers' one-dimensional offensive style.

Florida dumped Andrew Burnette, the interim coach, and brought in Paul Maurice, whose gritty, more defensive approach took time to set in with players. The Panthers also traded one of their best offensive players, left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, to the Calgary Flames for a stronger two-way wing in Matthew Tkachuk.

It took nearly a full season for Maurice's Panthers to become tougher, more physical, and more defensively responsible. They needed a late surge just to make the postseason, then ran off series wins against Boston, the Presidents' Trophy winner, Toronto, and Carolina.

The physically imposing Panthers came up short against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final, but this year, Florida is in a zone, leading the NHL with 43 wins and 90 points. The Panthers rank second defensively with 150 goals allowed, just behind the Winnipeg Jets' 148. No longer the best offensive team, Florida simply has evolved into the NHL's best team, the league's most complete team. Their identity? Physical, aggressive, gritty, and, most important, defensively responsible.

So often, fans hear players and coaches refer to getting back to or making sure we "play our game." It's a simple reference to identity coaches, and franchises are trying to develop. The Red Wings are close, and the Larkin injury poses another test for players. Can Veleno step up? How about J.T. Compher and Andrew Copp, the Red Wings' other two key centermen? Maybe the experience of Cup winners Kane and David Perron becomes more of a factor. It's crunch time, fellas; let's see what ya got.

So, if Lalonde and general manager Steve Yzerman hope to reach the playoffs, this would be a grand time for them to emphasize to players the team's emerging identity, those three D's, especially defense.