DETROIT – There’s a lot to like about Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin. The 19-year-olds can skate as well as anyone in the NHL. They know how to find the net. They create plays.
That’s all well and good, but Detroit coach Jeff Blashill really likes something else.
“I like the fact that they’re both U.S. guys,” Blashill said Tuesday. “I don’t say that with any disrespect to any other country. When we get to world competitions, I like cheering for the U.S. I’m a U.S. guy. I like coaching U.S. teams.
“I like the fact that they’re both U.S. guys. I think it’s great for the game, in the U.S. especially.”
Indeed, the future of international play for USA Hockey seems in good hands with Eichel and Larkin. For now, though, the rookies will keep their focus on the NHL. The longtime friends met for the first time in the big leagues Tuesday when the Sabres visited the Red Wings.
It was hardly their first time being competitive on the ice, however. They were teammates for two years in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program and have suited up together in junior tournaments and the world championships.
“He pushed me to be better,” Larkin said in Joe Louis Arena. “We always battled in practice, but we shared a laugh off the ice together always. Now to be at the highest level and in our first year together, it’s pretty cool.”
While Larkin said Eichel is the better player, Detroit’s rookie is off to a better start. Larkin had 10 goals and 18 points in his first 24 games while centering the top line for wingers Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader.
“It’s obviously a good place to play for him,” Eichel said. “He’s in a comfortable environment playing here in Detroit where he’s from. They have a good team, so I know he’s enjoying himself.”
Having teammates such as Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk allowed Larkin to ease into the spotlight, but his game is quickly drawing observers. Crowds swelled around Eichel and Larkin to get their thoughts on the matchup, giving Larkin a glimpse of what Eichel regularly faces.
“It’s been pretty crazy here,” Larkin said. “We’ve got great leadership and they’ve done a great job in keeping me grounded and just being able to play hockey. I know he’s had it since he was 16 years old. He’s had cameras like this all around him in every tournament we went to. For me, this is my first year having that.”
Like Eichel, the most noticeable trait possessed by Larkin is his speed. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder has an engine that fits in with the Motor City.
“His speed is a factor on the ice at all times,” said the Sabres’ Dan Bylsma, who coached Larkin and Eichel at the world championships. “These guys can flat-out fly. When you see Jack Eichel accelerate, he goes by people. Same for Dylan.”
Another thing the former roommates have in common is a desire to get better. Eichel has repeatedly said he needs to do more. Larkin wants to improve his consistency.
“He wants to be great,” Blashill said. “He wants to be a great all-around player. He’s not a guy who wants to do things to cheat for offense. He wants to do it right, so he’s been real receptive. We’ll continue to work on him getting better.”
As the Sabres went through their morning skate, it appeared Johan Larsson was sitting again. He was merely a bystander along the boards while the rest of the forwards did line rushes.
But after pulling Larsson aside for a long one-on-one chat, Bylsma announced Larsson was back in the lineup after a two-game benching.
“I want to see some energy and passion in his game,” Bylsma said. “He’s a good player with speed and skill, and he’s got to bring it with a little more passion, a little more jam to his game. I know he can provide it.”
Larsson was one of the Sabres’ better players at the end of last season, and the 23-year-old seemed poised to become a key contributor. But despite getting ample opportunities on scoring lines, Larsson had no goals and three assists in the opening 21 games.
“It’s obviously frustrating, but I’m just going to keep working,” Larsson said. “Too much ups and downs, obviously. I do some good things out there and some bad things, too. I’m just going to keep having a better consistent battle.
“I know I can trust my game.”
Online voting for the NHL All-Star Game began Tuesday and will continue until Jan. 1 at NHL.com/vote. Fans will elect the four captains for the revamped event, which will be held Jan. 30-31 in Nashville.