Detroit Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde needs to show more urgency about making the playoffs

Detroit Free Press

Before we get to Derek Lalonde, I have an urgent matter I need to discuss and it happens to be about the Detroit Red Wings’ urgency, or lack thereof.

So let me take you back to April 19, 2019 — the day Steve Yzerman was introduced as Wings general manager.

Here’s what Yzerman said that day: “This takes time, and this organization has been through it before. I can’t give you a specific timeline, but we are going to do this in the way that I believe will get us to where we need to be.”

And now, three years later, where exactly are the Wings? Still rebuilding, that’s where.

At every turn since that first news conference, Yzerman has balked at offering a timeline for a return to the playoffs. They’ve missed six straight postseasons.

So now they have a new coach, Lalonde, who is promising us … wait for it. Yep … no timeline for the playoffs or marked improvement, and more talk about the hottest thing in sports rebuilds: The process.

The Wings were good enough to be a playoff contender this past season, when they were within six points of a wild-card spot in mid-February. At Lalonde’s introduction Friday, I asked him why the Wings couldn’t be a playoff team this coming season, especially after Moritz Seider talked about the team’s burning desire to get to the playoffs last week.

“Everyone is preparing themselves to be better next season, to prove more people wrong and to fight for a playoff spot,” Seider said on June 28, the night he received the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. “I think it’s time for us to give something back, not only for ourselves but also for this city, the fans. We want playoffs at LCA.”

But Lalonde pumped the brakes on that urgency.

“I think I’d have to temper expectations,” Lalonde said. “We got great in Tampa when we literally just started focusing on process. I know it sounds like such a cliché but to sit there and talk about making the playoffs and where we’re going to be or put any number on wins, I think that’s foolish and that can hurt you if you’re going the wrong way. For me, it’s going to be the process.”

Here’s the thing about making the playoffs. It requires urgency. And it often requires someone to speak it into existence. And that often goes against what most executives, coaches and athletes fear the most: The pressure of expectations. Failing to live up to those leads to firings, trades and demotions, or at the very least ridicule. Just look at the Tigers this season after they spent March talking about the playoffs.

I don’t want to be unfair to Lalonde, because he has a big challenge ahead of him. He has to hire a staff and fix the defense and special teams, among a million other things. His general idea is that if the Wings focus on the process of getting better, of the right things the right way, good results should be a byproduct.

But it’s clear Lalonde is aligning his vision of the organization with Yzerman’s slow-roll tempo that hints at dynastic success at some undetermined time in an uncertain future.

“Deep down, of course we want to make the playoffs, we want to win,” Lalonde said. “Even interviewing with Steve, just the passion of him as a patient manager, selling this as we’re in the middle of a process, but, man, there’s some underlying passion with him too.

“We want to win. We’re going to do it correctly and the right way. It’s my job to begin that process. Hopefully we’re talking playoffs sooner than later, but it’s going to be about the process.”

Look, I’m all for doing things right and having a plan for how to do those things. But those goals and making the playoffs shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. You can do both without mortgaging your future.

If you watched the Wings play this season, you know they weren’t too far away from being consistently competitive, even against good teams. Lalonde saw that for himself while standing behind the Lightning’s bench for the past four seasons.

“Playing as many times as we did over the last couple years, we saw parts of that, where they were hard to play against,” he said. “They were not giving us an inch. I think our goal is to be more consistent.”

Wings owner Christopher Ilitch fielded questionsat Little Caesars Arena on Friday, unlike some other team owners — yes, I’m looking at you, Tom Gores and Sheila Hamp — and he should be commended for doing so. But Ilitch either bought a ticket on Yzerman’s slow-roll steamboat, or he’s at the helm himself.

“There’s always temptation for shortcuts,” Ilitch said, “or to try and take a shortcut or do something that perhaps would be rash, but it generally doesn’t work. It takes a lot of patience, it’s a process, it takes time.”

OK, but how much? It isn’t fair that Lalonde is inheriting the impatience and exasperation that has built up over six years in a place that calls itself Hockeytown. But the fact is, everyone’s tired of waiting for Yzerman’s skilled drafting and roster management to finally pay off with playoffs.

I asked Lalonde another question. I had a good guess about his answer beforehand, but I asked him anyway: What is his greatest strength? He didn’t hesitate.

“Communicator,” he said quickly. “Relationships.”

Though I would prefer Lalonde, Yzerman and Ilitch start mapping out a timeline for reaching the playoffs, I can’t deny I like Lalonde and that his personality should greatly aid his success. He was popular with players in Tampa Bay because he learned from his time as an assistant and recruiter at the University of Denver that he had to gain the trust of young men and their parents.

“I carried that with me,” he said. “I care about the guys. I’m going to care about the guys.

“We’re going to have a very good relationship, I going to want to have a relationship. I want to get to know the guys. Then when those hard conversations do come about, maybe there’s some trust there.”

It isn’t hard to see how Lalonde gains that trust. After the formal Q&A period Friday, reporters put down their notebooks and Lalonde chatted easily and comfortably with about half a dozen people he didn’t know for 10 minutes. He has a quick smile, and he’s self-deprecating and easygoing. You’d want your kid to play for him. You’d want to play for him.

Part of that comes with maturity. Lalonde turns 50 in August, and he’s been a successful coach with three minor-league teams. But he never rushed himself to reach for the brass ring. He wanted to focus on — you guessed it — the process of getting better.

“It was never about getting to the next level,” he said. “It was about growing, being progressive in your position, and the rest of it takes care of itself.”

There’s a lot to admire about that outlook on his lengthy journey. But sometimes other people can see what you can’t. When he turned down a chance to become a head coach for the first time by succeeding Jon Cooper with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers in 2010, Cooper called him immediately and let him know he was making a mistake.

“He kind of scolded me on my career, where I want to go,” Lalonde told the Athletic last year. “He said, ‘It’s not about this. It’s about challenging yourself and being better. If you want to be better, you have to be a head coach.’ ”

The next year, Lalonde took the Gamblers job. He led them to the league championship in his first season. A title in one year. Imagine that.

Yes, the process is always important. But sometimes it takes another person — be it a two-time Stanley Cup champ, a rookie of the year or even a pushy sportswriter — to nudge you out of your comfort zone and tell you not to be scared of the next step.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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