Detroit — The optimism is apparent. You feel it and hear it from Red Wings fans who have had to endure much losing over the last six seasons, six years of missing the playoffs and really not coming close.
Heading into Friday’s regular-season opener against Montreal, there is a sense the Wings are climbing out of “rebuild” category, and aren’t going to have to endure nightly defeats.
There is hope. Definitely anticipation.
“They usually say something along the lines they love the moves (general manager) Steve (Yzerman) has made, which is good; they should be excited,” Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin said. “I’m excited.”
With money to spend under the salary cap and a number of obvious holes to fill, and wanting to add some established veterans, Yzerman revamped the roster.
Yzerman acquired goalie Ville Husso, a prospective free agent who the Wings quickly signed to keep, then signed free-agent forwards Andrew Copp, David Perron and Dominik Kubalik, and defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta.
Add important pieces such as Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana and Filip Hronek, last season’s rookie sensations Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, and this year’s preseason rookie standout Elmer Soderblom, and you have a roster that is far above what the Wings have put on the ice in recent seasons.
“It means something that we went out and acquired so many players,” Larkin said. “But we have to go out and prove it. Just because you look at the roster on paper (and it looks improved) doesn’t mean anything. We have to prove it and finally that day has come to do that.
“It’s exciting. We’ve been waiting for this. It’s been a long summer. It’s been a lot of excitement around town.”
Some of that excitement also stems from a new voice behind the bench.
Lalonde is in his first NHL head-coaching job. He has consistently talked about entering this job, this position, with a “fresh start” in regards to personnel on this roster.
Lalonde feels this particular roster is fast, and wants to utilize that speed. He wants to this lineup to be difficult to play against.
Maybe, most importantly, improving team defense, which was a key reason Blashill wasn’t retained.
“A successful season will look like us improving our team defense, keeping it out of our net,” Lalonde said. “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.”
Interestingly, while others are at least whispering the word “playoffs”, and talking about the chance of the Wings maybe racing up the standings, Lalonde is taking a cautious, reserved approach.
The Wings finished with 74 points last season (32-40-10), a staggering 26 points behind Washington (100 points) for the final wild-card spot.
In the NHL, making up 26 points in the standings year-to-year is rare. Not impossible, and maybe the Eastern Conference tightens with the parity this season. But it’s rare to make that big of a jump in one fell swoop.
“I don’t mean to be pessimistic on the word playoffs,” Lalonde said. “It’s more a credit to the Eastern Conference.”
Larkin, and many Wings players, have been impressed with the way Lalonde has approached this training camp and preseason. Lalonde clearly has pointed out schemes and the way he wants this team to play. Lalonde’s communication has been direct.
“He cares about his players,” Larkin said. “I’ve seen that. He’s brought a lot of stuff from Tampa that we’ve been talking about for a month now. He’s real patient, calm behind the bench, which I really like.
“He’s demanding and he has to be, and there’s been uncomfortable conversations already, and I expect there to be more. And I expect that to help our team.”
In terms of how Lalonde wants to see this Wings’ team play, again, it all goes back to skating.
With that speed, that ability to move around the ice, Lalonde wants the Wings to attack.
“This team can skate, and sometimes, people just think of that as skating with the puck,” Lalonde said. “You see Dylan cutting through the neutral zone with the puck, (but) we want to be skating fast away from the puck, getting on top. It’s something we’re going work on. When we’re playing well, that’s how we’re going to look.”
If they’re able to utilize the way they want to play, and natural progression occurs with many of the Wings’ younger players, maybe they can spring a surprise. The depth is better, the talent level has increased.
Copp, an Ann Arbor native who starred at Michigan, was excited about returning home to play, but also about the Wings’ potential and where they are in the development curve.
Copp’s Winnipeg Jets teams had a similar learning curve. Where the Wings are now, Copp went through in Winnipeg.
“The year before we made the Western Conference Finals, there was a lot of good and bad,” Copp said. “We were inconsistent, and everyone saw the potential but it was just a matter of putting everything together and going through it. Now, I’m not saying we’re to that point and we’ll make it to the conference final next year. But you can see the pieces and growth of the group together that’s already been here, and it might take a bit of time to incorporate the new faces — we didn’t have to do that in Winnipeg as much — but it’s along that line.
“The pieces are there, and I just see a lot of similarities. It’s exciting.”
Everyone seems to have a different answer to what would constitute a “successful” season for the Wings. Larkin, who has been here for the last six seasons, probably has the best, and fairest, definition.
“Certainly an improvement from last year,” Larkin said. “I hope, I expect, we’re in the fight all the way and we’re not getting to the trade deadline and looking to send guys out. We’re trying to stick with that, and maybe we go and even add something (at the deadline).
“Be right there, and in the hunt, and if you get hot at the right time, you never know what’ll happen.”
For an organization and fan base that has suffered much over the last six years, took every step of the rebuild and endured the bad losses and uninspiring lineups, just being there close to the playoff hunt would be a positive and exciting step.
Canadiens at Red Wings
▶ When: 7 p.m. Friday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
▶ TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit/97.1 FM
▶ Records: This is Detroit’s season opener; Montreal is 1-0