Traverse City — They’ve come a long way already, the new coach and his “true” captain.
When Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman hired Derek Lalonde away from the Tampa Bay Lightning back in late June, one of Lalonde’s first phone calls was to Dylan Larkin, Detroit’s homegrown leader.
And while that line of communication sounds crystal clear now, there apparently was a brief moment of confusion.
“The first conversation, he called me and he said, ‘Hey, this is Newsy,’ and I was like, ‘Uh, who?’” Larkin laughed Thursday, shortly after the Wings wrapped up their first set of training camp practices at Centre Ice Arena.
But as the Wings’ captain quickly discovered, “Newsy” is the nickname Lalonde has carried with him since college, a nod to Hall of Famer Edward “Newsy” Lalonde, the original “Flying Frenchman” with the Montreal Canadiens a century ago. They’re not related, but the nickname is so ingrained by now, Lalonde says, “I think there are some people, to this day, in Tampa that don’t even know who ‘Derek’ is. They only know me as Newsy.”
Now Larkin does, too. Because these two have talked quite a bit over the last 2½ months as Lalonde has gotten settled in his new job as a first-time NHL head coach.
Lalonde went so far as to create a spreadsheet for his coaching staff to chart all their summer conversations with the Wings’ players and prospects.
“When we talked to a certain player, what we talked about and why,” he said, offering a glimpse into the new coach’s attention to detail.
‘First person on board’
Yet Larkin’s call sheet was a little different, by design.
He and Lalonde have talked about everything from travel schedules and team hotels on the road to practice plans and a team identity they’d both like to drive home, sooner rather than later. They’ve talked about systems and strategies, individual strengths and weaknesses, on and on.
“Dylan and I, we talked a ton,” Lalonde said. “But when you have a true captain, he needs to be the first person on board.”
And he is, by all accounts. In fact, while the coaches were busy working the phones in July and August, the 26-year-old Larkin was doing something similar — minus the spreadsheets — to help integrate the influx of veteran talent Yzerman signed in free agency. He already knew center Andrew Copp well — Copp was actually Larkin’s captain at Michigan in 2014-15 — but he quickly introduced himself to the rest of a group that includes veteran winger David Perron, forward Dominik Kubalik and defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta.
“I mean, the moment I signed, he called me right away,” said Perron, 34, who won a Stanley Cup three years ago in St. Louis. “Obviously, he’s been around for some years and he’s ready to see this team go the right way. I’m impressed with how well he takes care of every individual, not only on the team but in the organization. … He’s just a simple guy, but I think he’s the right captain for Detroit.”
Lalonde already has reached the same conclusion, obviously. Not that it was really up for debate, anyway, after Yzerman and Lalonde’s predecessor, Jeff Blashill, decided the time was right to name Larkin the franchise’s 37th captain on the eve of the 2021 season. (The Wings had gone without one the previous two seasons after Henrik Zetterberg retired.)
Lalonde says he finds this situation “very similar” to what he and Yzerman both saw in Tampa, where Steven Stamkos has been the captain for several years now.
“Everyone has a captain,” Lalonde said. “But it takes time to have that ‘true’ captain, and I think we have one here. … Now we can build that leadership group around him.”
Perron and Copp figure to be part of that group, especially since last year’s alternate captains — Danny DeKeyser and Marc Staal — have moved on. But Larkin has learned plenty on the job shouldering the load these last two seasons, coming out of a pandemic and the painful stages of a rebuild at the same time.
“But I think he’s just getting more and more comfortable with the role,” said Yzerman, who set the standard in Detroit as the longest-serving captain in NHL history. “And the one thing I’ve always encouraged him to do is, make sure to be yourself. Don’t try to be Nick (Lidstrom) or Henrik or any of us in the past. Just be yourself.
“He has a tremendous work ethic, he cares about his teammates, he cares about the team. And I think with each year, you kind of figure the role out — where you need to be, when you need to be there, when you need to address something, when you need to let things slide. So I think just experience is making him more comfortable in the role.”
At the same time, the discomfort Larkin experienced Thursday — playing for a new head coach for the first time in seven years — was energizing.
“I think I was a little nervous today getting on the ice,” he said, smiling. “It was something new: Your first day to make a first impression.”
The big picture
That goes both ways, too. And to hear Larkin talk, Lalonde’s first day on the job received rave reviews from the players. He started by reminding the entire group just how bad the Red Wings were defensively last season — dead last in the NHL — and then began showing them how the coaches plan to fix that.
“It’s kind of eye-opening, the simplicity and how organized it is,” Larkin said, citing some of the neutral-zone structures in particular. “I was very, very impressed with some of the things he introduced today. … And I could already see the buy-in, guys talking after practice about how they really like it, how simple it is, how we feel we’re gonna have the puck more.”
Larkin was back skating with a comfortable top-line pairing flanked by Tyler Bertuzzi and Lucas Raymond on Thursday. But he knows there’ll be some tinkering as Lalonde investigates other options up front. Likewise, the coach knows how “excited” Larkin is to be surrounded by more high-end talent on this roster.
He’s coming off arguably his best season individually, racking up 31 goals and 69 points in 71 games before finally cutting short his season in mid-April to undergo core muscle surgery. And Larkin presumably is getting closer to signing a long-term contract extension to stay in Detroit, though said he had no new updates to offer on that front Thursday.
Larkin is entering the final year of his first big contract as a pro, a five-year, $30.5 million deal signed prior to the 2018-19 season. He’s due for a significant raise, probably $8 million-plus annually on an eight-year term. He changed agents this offseason — Larkin is now with Pat Brisson/Matt Williams and powerhouse CAA — and also has a no-trade clause that kicked in on his current deal, so the Wings’ captain has leverage in these negotiations. But Larkin also reiterated Thursday that “I don’t see myself playing anywhere else.”
What he does see, however, is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“He’s been through everything here in the past seven years,” Lalonde said. “And we’re a long ways from where we want to be. But I think there’s some excitement, some optimism, and (Larkin) feels that, too.”
He knows that, of course, because they’ve talked about it. They’ve talked about the big picture and all the little details that need to be taken care of to put this whole thing together. They’ve talked about how this roster looks better — much better — on paper.
“But I’ve said it, and I’ve talked to Derek about it: We haven’t done anything yet as a group,” Larkin said. “So there should be no reason to look too far ahead.”