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FLUTO SHINZAWA | SUNDAY HOCKEY NOTES

Colin Larkin’s unlikely journey from UMass Boston to NHL prospect

Colin Larkin played four seasons at UMass Boston.
Colin Larkin played four seasons at UMass Boston.(Macayla Chianco)

Players always slip through the cracks.

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas’s leading scorer, landed in the desert after the Golden Knights claimed him from Florida in the expansion draft. Yanni Gourde, a fixture in the Lightning’s top six, joined the Tampa Bay organization as a free agent because no team considered him worthy of a draft pick. Sergei Bobrovsky is in Columbus because Philadelphia, the perpetual black hole of goaltending, traded away a puckstopper who would win two Vezina Trophies after becoming an ex-Flyer. Overlooked players, however, rarely end up on Morrissey Boulevard.

“You wait for the $200 deposit,” cracked UMass Boston coach Peter Belisle. “You hope they pay the bill for the first few months of school. You’re recruiting them all the way through the summer until they land here, pay the bill, pay the deposit, and move in.”

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Belisle, son of Mount St. Charles legend Bill Belisle, has coached good players. Norfolk native Peter MacIntyre advanced to the ECHL. Stephen Buco started his career at UMass Lowell before transferring to the Boston campus. But before Colin Larkin signed a one-year, two-way deal with Edmonton last Monday, Belisle had never coached a Beacon who got close to putting his name on an NHL contract. Division 3 schools such as UMass Boston simply don’t get players with such ceilings.

“It’s never happened to me before. It happened to my dad at Mounties in their heyday with all the NHL players,” said Belisle, referring to the future NHLers (Brian Lawton, Mathieu Schneider, Bryan Berard, Brian Boucher, Jeff Jillson) who rolled through Woonsocket. “But for us to get calls, leaving tickets for NHL scouts all year, it’s unprecedented. Edmonton took a chance on him. The easy thing to do would be to give him an [amateur tryout contract]. But they made a real commitment with a contract right away. I’m super proud.”

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There was never any question about Dylan Larkin’s NHL future. The Michigander was a can’t-miss prospect from when he joined the National Team Development Program to when the Red Wings called his name in the first round of the 2014 draft. Red Berenson, who has since handed over the keys to Mel Pearson at the University of Michigan, had a pretty good idea that Larkin would not be loitering around Ann Arbor for four seasons. Larkin only played one year of college hockey (47 points in 35 games as a freshman) before signing his entry-level contract with his hometown club. It is just a matter of time before Larkin agrees to an extension to a far bigger salary than the $925,000 he’s currently earning per season.

It wasn’t that way for Larkin’s big brother. Colin Larkin went undrafted. He did not get any Division 1 offers. He played junior for the Michigan Warriors of the NAHL. In 2013-14, Larkin scored 23 goals and 14 assists in 58 games for the Warriors — not enough for a D1 scholarship, but more than plenty for a D3 program such as Belisle’s.

Colin Larkin concluded his college career as captain, recording 24 goals and 22 assists in 27 games.
Colin Larkin concluded his college career as captain, recording 24 goals and 22 assists in 27 games.(Macayla Chianco)

“Those are the ones we’re trying to find,” Belisle said. “I think he could have walked on maybe at some places without any guarantees. But he didn’t feel wanted anywhere. We really wanted him. I don’t have the answer to [why he wasn’t recruited]. He was tall, lanky. Maybe that’s one of the reasons. Physically, he really made more of a commitment to his body during his collegiate time. Physically, he really improved. He became a better athlete. The commitment level of his game certainly grew. He ended up running the weight room by the end. Maybe that was a flaw that held him back.”

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It did not take Larkin long to make an impact. During his freshman season, Larkin played on the No. 1 line, scoring 10 goals and 17 assists in 27 games. As a sophomore, Larkin scored the overtime winner against Babson to give UMass Boston its first New England Hockey Conference title. The Beacons beat Trinity and Hobart in the NCAA Tournament before losing to St. Norbert in the Frozen Four.

Larkin was an alternate captain last year when he scored 20 goals and 19 assists in 26 games. Larkin concluded his college career as captain, recording 24 goals and 22 assists in 27 games. Like his little brother, Larkin is a speedy and skilled left-shot forward.

“From my first practice with him, I knew he was going to be special from that moment because of his skating,” Belisle said. “He wasn’t a pure goal scorer his first year. But he developed into one. He really worked at his game. He protects the puck so well now. He probably doesn’t realize how much he can push the pace as a player.”

It was not easy for Larkin to play D3, non-scholarship hockey while his brother was tearing it up in the NHL. Naturally, his opponents chirped him at every turn. On occasion, Larkin hit back.

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Colin Larkin will conclude his year with Bakersfield, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate.
Colin Larkin will conclude his year with Bakersfield, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate.(Macayla Chianco)

“The stuff I heard them talk: ‘You’re not your brother,’ ” Belisle said. “It was unbelievable the stuff they said to this kid in four years of college hockey. It really is. He fought through that. He almost never took a retaliatory penalty. On the occasions he did, I’d get in his face. ‘What do you expect they’re going to do? You know they’re going to say that.’ He blocked that out.”

To Belisle’s knowledge, Larkin settled well into college life. He lived in South Boston. He worked part time at a local package store.

Now he is an Edmonton prospect. He will conclude his year with Bakersfield, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, then participate in his first NHL training camp in September. To receive NHL consideration, Larkin will have to play defense, kill penalties, and provide energy as a bottom-six forward. If that happens, the Larkin brothers could butt heads in the NHL.

“Kind of unexpected coming out of D3,” said Dylan Larkin, who sometimes played street hockey with his older brother and his college teammates during summer visits to Boston. “But he worked hard. He never really got an opportunity to play Division 1. Never got an offer or anything. Went to UMass Boston and was excited to play. Kept playing and working hard. It’s a good story. He tore it up for four years and it’s well-earned.”

HOW TO NEUTRALIZE THE DELAY

Make sure the numbers are even

It looked really weird.

On March 3, as Paul Byron carried the puck through the neutral zone during a Montreal power play, Sean Kuraly almost paid the Canadien no mind. Kuraly practically skated behind Byron without even so much as a hint at attacking the puck carrier and denying him entry into the Bruins’ zone. This was by design.

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Like many teams, Montreal runs the delay on its power play. Its intention is to drop the puck back to one of its two trailers — the wizardly Jonathan Drouin being the No. 1 option — and disrupt the penalty killers’ gaps. Because of this approach, they want the opposing forward to close on the puck carrier. Once that happens, the Canadiens will drop the puck back to Drouin and force F1 to re-gap.

Kuraly didn’t take the bait.

“Our read is that if they have two trailers and he passes me, we’re still in a three-on-three,” Kuraly explained. “It’s going to be the puck carrier and two guys. I have three guys back. So if it’s a three-on-three, you leave it, because it’s a penalty kill. If we have an even number, that’s to our advantage.”

Canadiens left wing Paul Byron (41) had the breakaway, but was stopped by Sean Kuraly (52), who was called for slashing on the play.
Canadiens left wing Paul Byron (41) had the breakaway, but was stopped by Sean Kuraly (52), who was called for slashing on the play.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

In other words, it was a math problem. If Kuraly denied the drop to Drouin, the Canadiens would be advancing through the neutral zone with three attackers. Even though Kuraly was behind Byron, he had three teammates positioned with good gaps and ready to close on Byron and his two fellow rushers in the neutral zone: Tim Schaller, Zdeno Chara, and Kevan Miller. Kuraly will take those odds every time. The point of the penalty kill is to avoid outnumbered situations anywhere on the ice.

“They won’t take that,” Kuraly said of a three-on-three setup. “They want their odd-man rushes. So they’re not going to take a three-on-three. The puck carrier’s going to realize it’s not advantageous for a power play. He’ll drop it to one of those guys. Our plan is just to make that a little harder. Give him the three-on-three if he wants it. Sometimes he’ll take it.”

For teams that like the delay, the first setup is to use two trailers. That way, if the first trailer runs into a roadblock once accepting the drop pass, he always has the second trailer as an option. The Bruins utilized the delay earlier this season. Torey Krug would carry the puck up the ice. David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner were the trailers. Krug would usually drop the puck to Pastrnak. If Pastrnak couldn’t gain the zone cleanly, he could dish to Spooner on the left.

The wrinkle that power plays introduce is when they only use one trailer. In those cases, F1 has to adjust his route and be more aggressive on his approach in the neutral zone.

“You can’t get below him,” Kuraly said of the puck carrier. “If he skates by you, then it’s a four-on-three. So you have to stay above him and kind of force the puck out of his hands as early as possible.”

ETC.

Banged-up Blues better off as sellers

In retrospect, it looks like St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong made the right move by trading Paul Stastny before the trade deadline instead of adding for the stretch run. Last Monday, the Blues declared Jay Bouwmeester done for the season because of an injury to his left hip. The defenseman had originally delayed a procedure by receiving an injection in December. But Bouwmeester’s condition declined to the point where surgery was required.

“The hip was in a position where he was going to need surgery,” Armstrong told St. Louis reporters. “But Jay, being the competitor that he is and the one-time iron man, he wants to play through anything. It shows a lot of character for him to play through the pain of his hip for the entire season. But really from December on, it was really painful just doing day-to-day things and playing hockey. But he fought through it for us. I give him full marks for that.”

Doug Armstrong (right) is in his fifth season as Blues GM.
Doug Armstrong (right) is in his fifth season as Blues GM. (Jeff Roberson/AP/File 2017)

Bouwmeester is expected to miss 4-6 months following surgery under the hands of Dr. Marc Philippon, the Vail-based hip specialist. A broken ankle at the start of the season also limited Bouwmeester to 35 games.

The loss of Bouwmeester additionally caves in St. Louis’s left side of the defense. They were already without left-shot defenseman Joel Edmundson because of a broken arm. On the same day, the Blues revealed that depth forward Scottie Upshall had sprained the MCL in his left knee.

The Blues have had rotten injury luck this year. Robby Fabbri, limited to 51 games last year because of an ACL tear, has not played this season after reinjuring his left knee. Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, and Alex Steen are among St. Louis’s core players to have missed time because of poor health.

“It’s sort of been normal for this season,” Armstrong said of the latest run of poor health. “We’ve had to adjust to the number of injuries. I’d imagine we’re going to end up this year with over 300 man-games lost. They’ve been to some key players, starting out with Robby Fabbri, then Steen and Bouw at the start of the year missing the first portion of the year. The list goes on and on. We’re not the only team that has to deal with it. We’ll find a way.”

First one Sikura, then another?

The Blackhawks signed former Dartmouth standout Tyler Sikura to a one-year extension last Tuesday. The 25-year-old has been playing for Rockford, Chicago’s AHL affiliate, where he’s scored 16 goals and nine assists in 57 games. It’s possible that little brother Dylan Sikura could be next. The younger Sikura, Chicago’s sixth-round pick in 2014, is hoping for a long postseason run as he concludes his senior year at Northeastern. Sikura is eligible to become a free agent by mid-August if he declines to sign with the Blackhawks. But playing with his brother will be a strong motivation for Sikura to join his draft team.

Shakeup in Raleigh

Owner Thomas Dundon (left) removed Ron Francis (right) as GM.
Owner Thomas Dundon (left) removed Ron Francis (right) as GM.(Chris Seward/The News & Observer via AP)

Ron Francis had done some good things as Carolina’s GM. Noah Hanifin and Sebastian Aho, Carolina’s first- and second-round selections in 2015, should be foundational pieces. The Hurricanes are high on 19-year-old forward Martin Necas, their 2017 first-rounder. Francis locked up Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce to long-term extensions before either defenseman approached the end of his entry-level deal. Coach Bill Peters, formerly Mike Babcock’s assistant in Detroit, was a good hire. But budget teams like the Hurricanes cannot afford to take whiffs in net, where an ace goalie can steal points they don’t deserve. Francis missed by acquiring Eddie Lack from Vancouver. So far, it appears he erred in signing ex-Chicago backup Scott Darling. These mistakes are part of the reason Francis was kicked upstairs to president of hockey operations. It is the same title — a toothless one at that — given to Dale Tallon when Florida handed the keys to Lynn’s Tom Rowe in 2016. The next GM will report to new owner Thomas Dundon.

McGuire a good Hall fit

It was not easy for the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee to say goodbye to Scotty Bowman. The NHL legend has more institutional hockey knowledge in the crevasses of his brain than most of us combined. Bowman, however, had to depart because his 15-year term expired on Dec. 31, 2017. It is fitting, then, that Bowman handed the keys to Pierre McGuire, his longtime friend and former coaching colleague. Bowman and McGuire are very close. Their time together has allowed McGuire to siphon off some of Bowman’s wisdom. That intelligence, combined with McGuire’s bubbling enthusiasm for the sport and its participants, will serve the NBC Sports analyst well in his appointment on the selection committee. McGuire knows everybody in the game. He is perfectly positioned to help judge who gains entrance to hockey’s temple. Perhaps McGuire could convince the rest of the committee that Willie O’Ree deserves an entire wing, to say nothing of entry.

Loose pucks

It’s a shame Mike Green was injured prior to the trade deadline. Detroit would have surely wheeled the skilled right-shot defenseman to a contender if he were healthy. The 32-year-old Green is no longer the points-producing phenom of his Washington days. But he still has enough touch in the offensive zone to support the attack and run the power play. Green could score a three-year deal on the open market come July 1 . . . By adding Tommy Wingels before the trade deadline, the Bruins welcomed yet another former Miami University player to their mix. Other ex-RedHawks who have passed through the organization since 2011: Carter Camper, Reilly Smith, Alden Hirschfeld, Austin Czarnik, and Sean Kuraly . . . Rotten luck for Luke Kunin, Minnesota’s 2016 first-round pick. Kunin is out for the year after tearing the ACL in his left knee last Sunday. Following surgery, the promising rookie is expected to miss seven months . . . Taylor Hall’s 19-game points streak ended last Thursday. Coincidentally on the same night, Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, who swapped Hall for Adam Larsson, finally slept well.


Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.