Why Detroit Red Wings feel different early this season? New coaches, new players, new life

Detroit Free Press

At the quarter point of the season, the Detroit Red Wings have forged a winning record, shown improvement in key categories, and reinforced the outlook that they are coming out of the rebuild. 

They’re scoring more and blowing leads less, their special teams are winning games, they’ve had enough depth to endure being without key players, and on the whole are an entertaining team to watch.

They don’t look like an elite team — just ask their coach — but they do look like a team that has the will and skill to stay competitive this season. They’re 11-5-4 and in third place in the Atlantic Division, and with that in mind, here are 20 thoughts after 20 games:

Go Blue

General manager Steve Yzerman has endowed the Wings with an abundance of players formerly employed by the St. Louis Blues, from goaltender Ville Husso to forwards David Perron, Robby Fabbri and Oskar Sundqvist to defenseman Jake Walman. What the Blues discarded, the Wings embraced to become a much better team.

MVP

Several players have been excellent, but no one has been more valuable than Husso. He has provided outstanding goaltending (2.39 goals-against average. .919 save percentage in 14 games), making the saves that are expected and bailing out his teammates when they’ve let opponents generate entirely too good chances. The Wings play like a confident team when Husso is in net.

Power of Perron

Perron has transformed the power play into a consistent scoring threat thanks to his smart decision making, funneling pucks to the net either via passes or one-timers. There’s no inertia about the 34-year-old — he so quick to retrieve loose pucks and keep a cycle going.

SOMETHING SPECIAL:Special teams, goaltending help Wings thrive as they learn to play right way

Kubalik’s importance

When the season began, Dominik Kubalik was on the fourth line. After two games, Tyler Bertuzzi was lost to injury and Jakub Vrana was placed in the players assistance program, and Kubalik joined the top six. He has played a high-energy game since camp, and the reward is nine goals and 12 assists, a 1.05 points-per-game average. He’s been key to enduring the absence of offensive players.

Hronek’s resurgence

Filip Hronek hasn’t just recaptured the form that made him such an effective workhorse a few years ago; he’s exceeded it. Six goals, four assists in the last six games; 18 points and a plus-10 rating in 20 games. The Wings asked so much of Hronek in the years before Moritz Seider arrived, and now that the defense corps is much better, so is Hronek.

What about Bob

Bob Boughner, the former NHL defenseman and ex-NHL head coach, was hired last summer to be the assistant coach in charge of the defense and penalty kill. Head coach Derek Lalonde noted that, “I don’t think it’s an accident our D are playing at a really high level,” and that was a reference to Boughner’s impact on the back end.

Managing expectations

It’s humorous to hear Lalonde steadfastly say the Wings aren’t projected to make the playoffs, even as they’ve maintained a spot in the playoff picture. He’s smart to manage expectations, and he has sounded as calm after blowout losses to Buffalo and the Rangers as after victories. It’s clear why Yzerman hired Lalonde — he has coached the Wings to play better team defense, and with that has come a structure that has allowed them to have success.

Coaching club:Why Detroit Red Wings’ Derek Lalonde is a fan of Detroit Lions’ Dan Campbell

Actual advantages

For the last several years, the Wings were painful to watch when they had a power play — it often just amounted to them skating around looking lost for two minutes. An influx of players has helped, but credit also goes to assistant coaches Alex Tanguay and Jay Varady, “who have some non-negotiables within our habits on the power play and the guys are starting to buy into it,” Lalonde said. Even when the power play hasn’t scored, it isn’t giving up momentum like it used to because it is still generating good looks.

The Bone Crusher

Wings players were laughing on the bench when Ben Chiarot singlehandedly demolish multiple Anaheim Ducks in one shift back in October. Charot is physical, smart and an excellent partner for Seider. Chiarot sometimes gets into penalty trouble, but he has helped strengthen the defense corps to the best it’s been in 10 years.

More:Detroit Red Wings want Ben Chiarot to be physical, but don’t let penalties ‘pile up’

The defense’s offense

The defense corps has contributed 44 points (it was at 24 after 20 games last season) and what Lalonde likes best about that is that, “It’s going in because we are playing the right way. Our D is not chasing the offense. We have structure.” Hronek and Seider (nine points) and Olli Määttä lead the way, but all eight defensemen have at least a point.

Leading the way

Larkin delivered a highlight-reel move when he denied L.A.’s Viktor Arvidsson a chance to score early in the season, and most recently scored in a shootout to clinch a victory against Arizona. He is where it befits him to be, leading the Wings with 23 points. It would benefit both sides to get his contract extension done as soon as possible, but there’s a gap with the Wings pegging him around $8 million a year and Larkin’s side eyeing the $9 million a year Mathew Barzal got from the Islanders as a comparable. The longer this goes the more of a distraction it becomes, but ultimately it’s hard to see Larkin not re-signing.

More:Detroit Red Wings mailbag: Why pending FAs Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi remain unsigned

Bertuzzi’s situation

Bertuzzi missed a month dealing with a broken hand, and has four points in seven games. He’s a gritty player with a nose for the net, but he’s also missed significant time in recent years because of injuries. He, too, is in the last year of his contract, and if the sides don’t come to terms soon, the expectation is Yzerman will trade Bertuzzi to avoid the risk of losing him for nothing to free agency.

Net gains

Claiming Magnus Hellberg off waivers added a goaltending option. The schedule has been spaced well enough that the Wings have been able to ride Husso for five starts and counting. Alex Nedeljkovic’s last start came Nov. 12, when he allowed four goals on 21 shots at L.A., leaving him with a 4.33 GAA and .873 save percentage. The next back-to-back comes the first weekend in December. Unless Husso or Nedeljkovic aren’t available, it’s hard to see when Hellberg might play.

Sunny side up

When Yzerman traded Nick Leddy to St. Louis at last season’s deadline, it was principally to gain a 2023 second-round pick to help build the future. But add-ons Walman and Sundqvist turned out to help in the present. Sundqvist (6 foot 3, 209 pounds) plays like the big man he is, providing a net-front presence on the power play, and adds personality to the locker room with his sunny disposition. Walman is a swift skater with a terrific shot who has made the third pairing better. He’s plus-5 in five games.

More:How Detroit Red Wings’ Jake Walman went from ‘risky and erratic’ to ‘really good’

Copp coming

Andrew Copp had a slow start, which was to be expected after he missed camp because of injury, but even as a month passed he still struggled. He looked like he started to find his groove on the west coast trip, and now he has four points in four games.

Berggren belongs

Jonatan Berggren has impressed since being called up Nov. 10, posting five points in seven games. He has added offensive dimension to the fourth line, and earned power play time. Should the Wings get fully healthy, Berggren is vulnerable because he can be sent down without waivers, but he has NHL-level skills and made a case to stay.

Good vibrations

Lalonde said after the 4-3 shootout over the Coyotes that, “you can can see there’s a good vibe around the guys right now, there’s some momentum.” They worked their way out of an 0–2–2 slide to build a four-game winning streak, five-game point streak. “Probably leaning on our special teams too much,” Lalonde said. “We are probably overachieving as a group just because we’ve had some great will and some great attitude.”

Big test on Monday

The Toronto Maple Leafs come to town Monday. That’s an excellent test for the Wings, a chance to prove themselves against a team with high-end skill. They can’t give up easy offense, or hand the Leafs power plays, if they want to continue the good vibes.

December’s gifts

December’s schedule begins with a home game against the Vegas Golden Knights, and also features games at Tampa Bay, Florida, Dallas, Washington and PIttsburgh, with home dates against the Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes. Those are teams with elite skill, and a great barometer for whether the Wings can sustain their first-quarter success.

Everything is better

Hronek summed up the first six weeks when he said “I’m feeling like our team is better and everything is going well for us now. I believe each guy feels better.” How could they not? For those who have been around for a number of years, like Hronek and Larkin, this confidence that they can compete, and that rough patches won’t last, is so refreshing. They’re not an elite team by any means, but they sure are fun again.

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

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