Detroit — The Red Wings were going to awake Thanksgiving morning either securely in an Eastern Conference playoff spot, if the season were to end, or just a smidgen out of the race.
In the NHL, there are plenty of analysts who take the Thanksgiving standings as gospel, and maybe for good reason. Twelve of the 16 teams that made the playoffs last season were in those spots on Thanksgiving, and generally speaking, that’s been the average for many years.
So, the Wings have entered the discussion as the season hits the quarter-pole here in the matter of the days.
How the Wings have done it, in coach Derek Lalonde’s estimation, is “sheer will and commitment.”
Lalonde went deeper into what that has encompassed through the first two months of the season.
“Block shots, tracking, back-checking, getting above plays, like all those hard things you have to do to be successful,” Lalonde said. “Especially nights where we’re not going to out-talent a team. I was fortunate to be in Tampa where when we didn’t play our best, our elite talent got us through some games. We’re not going to get many of those nights here.”
The Wings stayed in the playoff hunt for the better part of half of last season. Though not faring well against playoff-caliber teams, the Wings consistently earned points against teams lower in the standings.
But after midseason, with the schedule populated with tougher opponents, the Wings wilted and responded poorly to their own self-challenge of playing the type of hockey they wanted.
Lalonde and his coaching staff have made sure the Wings keep riveted on the task, or tasks, ahead of them this season.
“There’s a difference between winning hockey and unfortunately where they were at the end of last year,” Lalonde said. “It was a tough situation for everyone. A depleted lineup, they had no chance of making the playoffs. So, what are you playing for? We talk about our ‘why’ in the room all the time, what was their ‘why’ then? Are guys cheating for points? It’s a little tougher in those situations to put your body on the line, and I understand it.”
Lalonde and many Wings players have talked about the importance, or goal, of staying in the race as long as they can, and hopefully playing meaningful games in the standings until deep into the season.
After missing the playoffs the last six seasons, that would be a meaningful step for the organization.
“Our goal all along was improving our team defense and playing meaningful games later in the year,” Lalonde said. “We’re not there yet but hopefully we can get there. (It’s) very important in growth and development.”
With forward Elmer Soderblom (lower-body) unavailable, and likely to be unable to play in the near future, and then likely to have a conditioning stint in Grand Rapids once Soderblom does return, the subject of what to do with forward Jonatan Berggren isn’t looming soon.
But it could be, at some point, and then you wonder, what do the Wings do with Berggren?
One of the Wings’ top prospects, Berggren has shown he’s more than capable at the NHL level in five games, thus far. Berggren has a goal and two assists in five games, while averaging just under 13 minutes of ice time (12:57) and seeing time on the Wings’ power play.
With only 12 healthy forwards currently, Berggren’s future isn’t an issue.
“If we are healthy and we start getting into 13-14 forwards when Elmer comes back, now we probably have those type of conversations,” Lalonde said. “What makes sense? What’s better for development at the time, 10,12, 13 minutes in that role, or a significant role in the American Hockey League?
“Hopefully we have that luxury someday.”
Berggren, incidentally, will have his mother and brother in town for the holiday this weekend. Berggren was planning on taking them to a restaurant and watching football.
“I haven’t seen them for a long time, it’ll be nice to just be with each other,” Berggren said. “It’s the first NHL game for them, so it’ll be a cool experience.”
… Though some of forward Andrew Copp‘s statistics are lagging compared to recent seasons, Lalonde feels it’s important to evaluate Copp’s play fully to understand what Copp brings nightly to the lineup.
“First out on the penalty kill, he’s got the checking assignment versus the top (opponent’s line),” Lalonde said. “We looked at some underlying numbers the other day, he’s one of the top centermen in defensive-zone starts versus the top players in the league.
“And then he was one of the least offensive-zone starts, so we’re already setting him with some really tough tasks, then we’re putting the faceoff on his off-hand many times.
“There’s a lot there.”