Detroit Red Wings ready to emerge from rebuild with confidence and fresh look

Detroit Free Press

The 2022-23 Detroit Red Wings look and sound like a competitive team that will be fun to watch emerge from a rebuild.

Steve Yzerman has done as a general manager what he was part of early in his playing career: Rebuild the franchise through the NHL draft, forging a core that will be the driving force towards a better present and, he hopes, a playoff future.

As they embark on a new season, guided by a new head coach, there is confidence in the locker room, internal optimism blended with external antagonism. Moritz Seider hit upon it as he explained how the Wings see themselves measuring up against opponents.

“We want to put our game in their face every night,” he said. “If we do that, I think we will be successful in the long run. Our confidence level is really high. We trust our system. I think everyone is looking forward.”

More:Why Steve Yzerman believes Detroit Red Wings will be ‘a better hockey team’

Fresh start

When Yzerman chose Derek Lalonde to be the Wings’ first new head coach in seven years, it completed Yzerman’s imprint on the team. The players who embarked on the 2019-20 season, Yzerman’s first as GM, were so overmatched as a group they had won only 17 games when the pandemic shuttered the season three weeks before the finish line.

Steadily, at times stealthily, and sound fiscally, Yzerman made the Wings his team. Bringing in Lalonde was the final piece. He wants the Wings to make it hard for opponents to get out of their zone, and to play in sync. “We’d love to have that be our identity,” Lalonde said.

Players are buying into Lalonde’s fresh-start approach.

“There’s a lot of energy,” Lucas Raymond said. “You have to prove yourself to the new coaches and I feel like the new coaches brought a lot of energy, as well.

“I think the biggest thing is everyone wants to adjust and play with a high pace. It has felt really good.”

Seider and Raymond were selected by Yzerman in his first two drafts as GM, and form a younger core that complements the core group in its mid-20s — headlined by Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana and Filip Hronek. They are joined by a new supporting cast in David Perron, Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot, Olli Määttä and Dominik Kubalik. after years of having only one scoring line, the Wings may have four strong lines, and a capable top-four defense corps.

“We have more guys that can fill roles,” Larkin said. “That’s the biggest difference, seeing the depth in the lineup. It was a learning curve with a new coach, but towards the end of camp, guys were playing more freely within the system and understanding what they have to do. It’s all positive, it’s an exciting new feeling with having a new coach, new players, going into a new system.”

The influx of players has created competition and urgency.

“I think there’s more intensity, more jump, especially from some of the newer guys,” goalie Alex Nedeljkovic said. “There’s a little bit of excitement in the entire room. That’s been the biggest difference.”

Uniting as a team

Nedeljkovic joined the Wings via trade in the summer of 2021, coming off a good showing with the Carolina Hurricanes that saw him post a 1.90 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 23 games. This summer, Yzerman traded for Ville Husso, who had a solid season for the St. Louis Blues with a 2.74 GAA and .919 save percentage in 40 games.

Nedeljkovic and Husso have had success, but neither has a long résumé. Nedeljkovic has played 88 NHL games; Husso, 57. That’s not much experience for the guys expected to carry the load of an 82-game season, and that is where implementing Lalonde’s systems come into play.

“With Alex, the question is how can we get him back to his Carolina form, if you will,” Lalonde said. “To me, it’s that we need to look like Carolina in front of him.

“It’s a work in progress. There were some positives in camp — it’s only exhibition, but our five-on-five numbers keeping it out of the net were very good. Now we hope that translates into what you see in the regular season.”

Lalonde served as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2018-22. The team was swept in the first round of the playoffs his first season — then won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and made the final last season.

“Tampa Bay, they figured out how to win and they closed games out,” Larkin said. “‘Newsy’ has been a part of it with being there, they figured out the recipe to win, and I hope he can bring that here. We’ve already implemented some of the strategies that they use. So I am hoping the way we play can really give us confidence to close games out.”

Lalonde was an assistant during Yzerman’s last year in Tampa, so Yzerman knew him well when he hired him. Yzerman strengthened the Wings for Lalonde — one key move being signing Chiarot and Määttä to partner with Seider and Hronek. Chiarot has appeared in 489 games over his NHL career, gaining a reputation as a tough guy to play against. He sees joining the Wings as an opportunity to be part of the rebuild.

“You see what Steve is trying to do here, and that is appealing to a player,” Chiarot said. “The players that were already here — Mo, Lucas — it’s an up-and-coming team. Simon Edvinsson looks amazing, he is going to be an awesome player eventually.

“There’s a lot to like here and a lot to like moving forward. It’s going to be an exciting place over the next handful of years.”

More:At Steve Yzerman’s request, Elmer Soderblom gets big look with Detroit Red Wings

Moving forward

The Wings made progress last season, and while the final couple months of the seasons were tarnished by lopsided losses, it was a good experience for the younger players on how much harder the games are as teams maneuver for playoff positioning.

“There were a lot of good things last year,” Seider said. “We don’t have to be that frustrated about it, because we took steps forward. We finished way better than the years prior.

“It is probably the biggest challenge we have — staying healthy, and then performing every single night, and find a way to win games in late February, early March. We want to be there, we want to be on top. I think it’s going to be a fun ride.”

For all the improvements made, for all the growth from within, it is hard to see the Wings making the 2023 playoffs. They are in a tough Atlantic Division, with the Lightning, Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs projecting to grab the top three spots. The Boston Bruins appear to be on a downswing, but they find a way to stick around. The Ottawa Senators look significantly better. In the East’s other division, the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders project to make the playoffs out of the Metropolitan.

Yzerman hasn’t put on a date on when he expects the Wings to reappear in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. What the 2022-23 Wings will be judged on is how competitive and cohesive they are.

“A successful season will look like us improving our team defense, keeping it out of our net,” Lalonde said, “and playing meaningful, significant games late in the season. We expect to be better, and we expect some of our young players to take a natural progression. We signed some players that are fitting in nicely.

“I don’t mean to be pessimistic on the word playoffs. I think it’s more a credit to the Eastern Conference.”

As they begin the new season, the atmosphere around the Wings seems fresher; their attitude, determined. They look ready to emerge from the rebuild, and prove they are on a brighter path.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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