Detroit — In April, within the final four weeks of the regular season, Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin was asked about Michael Rasmussen’s development.
Few players on the Wings roster improved and stood out — especially in the second half of the schedule — as Rasmussen did. The Wings’ 2017 first-round pick noticeably began looking like the player the organization envisioned when they selected him ninth overall.
“I see confidence and he’s gotten it for himself,” Larkin said after another impressive Rasmussen game. “It’s not really anyone’s job to give you confidence. Through his maturity, he’s really grown into finding that, playing the right way and gaining trust from the coaching staff and getting put in key situations and then excelling.
“You’re seeing it now, where pucks are starting to go in. He’s hard around the net. He’s a thorn in the side of key players on the other team every night. It’s really encouraging to see the way he plays.”
Then, Larkin gave Rasmussen one of the purest, highest cliche compliments a hockey player can get.
“He’s really driving the bus for us right now,” Larkin said.
When told about it afterward, Rasmussen was humbled, as a young hockey player would be.
“That’s really nice, coming from a guy who every night drives the bus for us, leads us. That’s a compliment I’ll take,” Rasmussen said. “(I’m) just try to keep going and keep playing the same way.”
Rasmussen did, and he finished with an NHL career-high 15 goals, including seven over the final 16 games. In his last five games of the season, Rasmussen scored three goals, had one assist and put 16 shots on net.
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound center played with a purpose on both ends of the ice, and he was the type of physical force opponents will, or could, have difficulty matching up with in the future.
“(The season) was positive overall,” Rasmussen said during a season-ending media call. “I took a lot of strides in the right direction, got better at some stuff I needed to get better at. I just gained more experience, so individually it was good for me.”
Larkin talked about the confidence Rasmussen was playing with, and it was apparent. Completing this third NHL season, and only being 23, the NHL game was beginning to become natural and he was able to slow it down.
“It just kind of comes with confidence and with figuring things out,” Rasmussen said. “Maybe I just started to kind of figure it out, maybe got some luck. I can’t really put a finger on it. I try to play the same kind of way, play hard the right way.
“But maybe it’s just kind of me slowly understanding it and stuff clicking for me.”
Rasmussen’s progress and production allowed former Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who wasn’t retained after the season, the ability to play Rasmussen in a variety of ways.
Rasmussen is able to play both center and wing comfortably. Blashill played Rasmussen at both positions, on either a scoring or checking line, and also a net-front presence on the power play.
“It’s important to be a guy that can move up and down the lineup or play in different situations,” Rasmussen said. “It’s something I try to be effective at, whether I’m playing wing or center or whatever special teams. Wherever I can help the team and fit in and give the guys some energy and some life when we need it.
“It’s something I try hard to be good at. It’s important.”
It’s been an uneven progression for Rasmussen, who because of a CBA technicality stayed in the NHL as a 19-year-old. He wasn’t able to play in the AHL in Grand Rapids and possibly saw his confidence and development stall.
Rasmussen was with the Griffins the following season but battled injuries. It was the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season where Rasmussen had a great start playing in Europe and began strong in seven games with Grand Rapids, before being brought up to the Wings.
That’s where Rasmussen may have turned a corner.
“You’re disappointed when you don’t make the team, for sure, so you just take it as fuel and as motivation and get up there (Grand Rapids) and get in the locker room and never leave it, pretty much,” Rasmussen said. “All my experiences have kind of built to kind of who I am and how I operate.
“I’d say last year, going to the minors at the start of the year, you kind of have the choice when you go down there and think, ‘Is someone screwing you and getting an opportunity?’ or kind of do the opposite and look yourself in the mirror and get to work and know you have some things to improve on or be better at.
“You have to have the desire to be a good player and carry yourself well and work as hard as you can. That’s what I have learned. If you work hard and you’re a good person, it’ll come out on the other side for you.”
Consistency is another characteristic that Rasmussen has found vital for NHL success.
“It’s a new challenge, and kind of just the same challenge, over and over,” Rasmussen said. “Good players can bring it every night, whether on the scoresheet or just other ways. The biggest thing is consistency and not getting too high or too low on yourself.”
Blashill is the only NHL coach Rasmussen has known, so arriving at training camp next season with a new head coach on the ice will be a different sort of experience.
Rasmussen credited Blashill with playing a big role in his development.
“He never handed me anything,” Rasmussen said. “He expected me to be a hard worker and do it the right way and buy into the team and system. For that, I’m grateful for Blash. I owe him a lot in the sense he didn’t hand me anything and he taught me in that way. It’s real hard to be a good everyday player and I’ll definitely take that for the rest of my career for sure.”