Tampa, Fla. — For Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde, getting to see his family and being able to sleep in his own bed were terrific things to look forward to after Sunday night’s win over Columbus.
The next stop was Tampa, where Lalonde had spent the last four years as an assistant coach and where he still keeps a home. But, there was one other item on Lalonde’s checklist that he couldn’t wait to check off.
“I miss my dog more than anything,” Lalonde said. “We’ve had a long time apart.”
The dog is an Australian Labradoodle. And her name?
“Winnie,” Lalonde said with a smile. “See what we did there? Coincided with the Stanley Cup wins.”
Lalonde was part of two Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Lightning. They reached The Finals last spring but lost in six games to Colorado. He was part of a Tampa team that tied the Wings’ 1995-96 roster with 62 victories, the most ever in the NHL. The Lightning was — and in the current salary cap era, is — as much a dynasty as can be accomplished.
But Lalonde, 50, left Tampa when Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman offered him the head-coaching job, officially being hired on June 30.
Tuesday, Lalonde visits the Lighting for the first time, and he’s looking forward to it.
“It’s not going to be awkward; it’s a beautiful, wonderful opportunity,” Lalonde said. “Them hiring me, giving me my first opportunity in the league, just the memories and the relationships. The Stanley Cups.
“It’s special to go back there.”
This will be an interesting visit all the way around, and not just for Lalonde. Remember, it was Jeff Blashill who was not retained by Yzerman, and whom Lalonde replaced. And where is Blashill now?
Blashill essentially took over Lalonde’s place as an assistant on head coach Jon Cooper’s staff, and obviously, it’ll be the first time Blashill faces his old team, the Wings.
Interesting night, all the way around.
But one thing is for sure — with the Wings at 12-7-5 after Sunday’s 4-2 victory in Columbus, and at least dreaming about the playoffs, Lalonde is making an impact with his new team.
“Newsy (Lalonde’s nickname) has brought a lot of things and added momentum to our team,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “When we went into training camp, we watched clips of what we were going to be doing, how we were going to be playing, and it was a lot of seeing what Tampa does. (The system) is easier to get behind, because it has had success and it’s proven in what they do.”
A successful coach in the USHL, the ECHL (with Toledo, a Wings’ minor-league affiliate), and the AHL, before joining Cooper’s staff in Tampa, Lalonde had head-coaching experience. Just not at the NHL level.
But it was a master class, of sorts, being in Tampa, and Lalonde was confident in what he wanted, and could bring, to the Wings. Especially what Lalonde had experienced in the last four years in Tampa, and how the Lightning evolved.
“The growth and transformation we had to go through to get from good to great, and how we had to manage our game and hold some of our players accountable in different areas of their game, a little of team over self and what winning looks like and sacrifices of things, that helped me immensely as a coach,” Lalonde said. “Winning and winning it all are a lot different. We went through it the hard way in Tampa. We (tied) an NHL record for wins in a season and we weren’t playing the right way. It helped me get a better feel for what it looks like.
“We’re in a different spot here than where we were in Tampa. But, a lot of it is the same. You can see us trying to establish some winning habits with our game.”
Two things Lalonde is particularly appreciative of during his time in Tampa were being able to work with Cooper, and then, the Lightning players.
Seeing how Cooper dealt with people, and kept the Lightning fresh and hungry, impressed Lalonde.
“It was immense,” Lalonde said of his time with Cooper. “They had a window of winning, and very few times in your career do you go to a situation where you can be part of something special, getting a team over the hump.
“How he (Cooper) managed, I wanted to be part of that and I knew it would be good experience under him, how he managed and grew in the offseason and managed his players and staff up. I probably didn’t appreciate how much I was taking from Coop until I actually got here and becoming a head coach on a daily, day-to-day basis.”
Coaching Tampa’s elite level of talent was also educational.
“Managing elite talent and having that elite talent come around into winning hockey,” Lalonde said of Tampa’s roster. “Some of those stars sacrificed their individual game to win those two Stanley Cups and three Finals runs.”
Wings players have praised Lalonde for his enthusiasm and ability to communicate, while also being teaching and demanding when needed.
“He brings positive energy,” said Larkin, who was impressed with Lalonde’s enthusiasm from their first conversation.
Larkin has been one of the players Lalonde has held accountable for better individual defense and Larkin has responded with one of the best starts in his pro career.
“There’s been some uncomfortable moments in video, and that’s part of being a leader and a top player, and it’s meaningful when you’re in there and getting called out because we’re all in this together,” Larkin said. “We have to defend together and get better together.
“He’s real calm behind the bench, he kind of analyzes and doesn’t say much. He makes adjustments in the intermission, never seems in panic mode.”
Larkin has known Lalonde, at least casually, since Larkin was a junior player and Lalonde was coaching Green Bay in the USHL. Then, there was the time Larkin was in development camp and Lalonde was the head coach in Toledo, in the Wings’ organization.
“I’ve known him for longer than it seems,” Larkin said. “But it’s nice to work him.”
The man Lalonde replaced, Blashill, was the only NHL head coach Larkin had known.
Blashill was put in a difficult situation, in charge of a Red Wings’ rebuild that often had rosters that simply weren’t good enough to compete in the NHL.
But Larkin gives Blashill credit for the Wings always being professional and competitive.
“A great person, a great coach,” Larkin said. “No matter what kind of team we had, we were always a close group and we always played hard, and that’s a credit to him. There were a lot of days, a lot of years, that it was very difficult coming to the rink, and he always found a way to make sure the attitude of the group was good and that we were always going to go into the next game prepared.
“Looking back, it’s something that I couldn’t imagine how hard it was. Hard to go through it, and to continuously do it, I applaud him for it.”
Still, last spring, Yzerman felt it was time to bring in a new voice, a new direction. Yzerman also constructed a much different-looking roster.
Lalonde has enjoyed working with Yzerman, as he did during their Tampa years.
“I love working for Steve,” Lalonde said. “He’s extremely, extremely demanding and that comes from passion. There’s no one here that wants to get this going more than him. I love that. I wouldn’t want it any other way. We’re in this together, we have to be. Coop told me in taking this, Steve is going to be demanding, but that is the most important relationship. It’s been great so far.”
When Lalonde arrives at Amalie Arena Tuesday for the morning skate, it’ll be his own team now. Lalonde is the head coach, opposing Cooper, and it’ll be different, though Lalonde hasn’t changed.
Lalonde is the same guy, with the same coaching beliefs and an even-keeled approach. He learned that while in Tampa and will go forward with it.
“The buck stops with me, and I probably have to hold guys a lot more accountable than what I did in Tampa,” Lalonde said. “You build a bit different relationship.
“But I still stick to who I am.”
Red Wings at Lightning
▶ Faceoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Amalie Arena, Tampa
▶ TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM
▶ Outlook: Tampa (15-8-1) is getting healthy and beginning to look like the team that has made the Stanley Cup Finals the last three years, including two Cups. RW Nikita Kucherov (25 assists, 36 points), C Steven Stamkos (13 goals) and G Andrei Vasilevskiy (10-7-1, 2.78 GAA) headline a star-studded lineup.