Derek Lalonde, Red Wings see improvement in special teams

Detroit News

There were specific areas coach Derek Lalonde wanted to see the Red Wings improve upon during his first season with the team.

For the most part, the Wings did get better in some important departments as the season came to a close Thursday in Tampa.

The Wings will not be involved in the NHL playoffs when they begin Monday. It’ll be the seventh consecutive season the Wings will be watching, so that was a miss, though few people felt the Wings had the talent base yet to contend.

After earning 74 points last season, the Wings went into the season finale with 80 points, so there was mild improvement, though many prominent betting sites put the Wings between 84-86 points before the season began.

But then, there are the special teams. They’ve been a particular source of frustration and disappointment the last several years, though there was progress made this season.

“Absolutely,” Lalonde told reporters after Thursday’s morning skate in Tampa. “Vastly improved, we’re flirting with the top half on both, despite where our personnel was down the stretch.”

The power play sat at 16th overall (21.3%) before Thursday’s games, smack in the middle of the 32-team NHL. The penalty kill was 18th, at 78.5%.

Last season, the Wings finished 26th on the power play (16.3%) and last, 32nd, on the penalty kill (73.8%).

The power play has been sparked, unexpectedly, in the final weeks by the addition of forward Alex Chiasson.

The Wings added Chiasson to the roster after the trade deadline, after dealing away several forwards.

Chiasson, 32, signed late with the minor-league affiliate Grand Rapids Griffins after not getting an NHL contract to begin the season.

Chiasson quickly became an effective net-front presence, scoring five of his six goals, in 19 games, on the power play.

“Alex Chiasson was on his couch two months ago, and now he’s helping our No. 1 power play (unit),” Lalonde said.

The penalty kill rarely has been whole, mainly among the forwards.

“Bob Boughner (assistant coach who oversees the penalty kill) hasn’t had a top-four group forward-wise all year long through injury or trades,” Lalonde said.

Tyler Bertuzzi was hurt the majority of the season, then dealt at the trade deadline. Oskar Sundqvist missed some time with injuries, then was traded. Michael Rasmussen missed much of the second half of the season with an injury.

But, somehow, the Wings have been able to cobble together a unit that improved substantially year-to-year.

Team defense was another area that needed plenty of attention.

After ranking 31st in goals-against average (3.78 goals per game) last season, the Wings sat 22nd Thursday, at 3.33 goals against per game. Improved, although a number that needs to get better to get into playoff contention.

“Team defense, underlying numbers (analytically) have improved, those are areas we wanted to improve on,” Lalonde said. “We hit them all. It’s still not good enough. We’re not going to be in the playoffs. But we checked off some boxes.

“But it’s just a step. There’s still a way to go.”

Family time

Lalonde would like to be preparing for the playoffs, as he has the last four seasons while as an assistant coach on Tampa’s staff.

But with no playoffs for the Wings, Lalonde will be able to spend ample family time, something that was lacking with all the long playoff runs.

“I’m looking forward to spending more time with them,” Lalonde said. “I’d never change it, the fact we went to three straight Stanley Cup Finals (Tampa won two of them) through COVID, but no one has played more hockey than that (Lightning) group, which obviously I was involved with. We had no offseason (because of the compacted, COVID-impacted schedules).

“I would have traded in no offseason again (to make the playoffs), but I am looking forward to spend some time with the family.

“But also digging in to our next step this summer with this group.”

Impressive core

With Pittsburgh and Washington both missing the playoffs this spring, and much being speculated in regards in those two organizations and their talented but aging cores, some attention is now being focused on Tampa.

The Lightning will play Toronto in the first round, a team Tampa defeated in seven games last season’s playoffs. But the Lightning have looked inconsistent and beatable the last quarter of the schedule, and many analyts are picking Toronto to advance.

Lalonde respects the Tampa veterans who’ve won the two Stanley Cups too much to not believe the Lightning don’t have another run left in them.

“We’re coaches (but) we’re not putting through (physically) what they (players) put themselves through,” Lalonde said. “It’s amazing what they accomplished as a group, and this run they had, through the COVID (era), it stays a lot about that room.

“And they’re prime for another one. I talk to (coach) Jon (Cooper) all the time. They’ll get there again. I don’t know if it’ll be this year, but one or two more, that core is too special and too resilient. It’s impressive what that group has done.”

Twitter: @tkulfan

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