Steve Yzerman showed Detroit Red Wings some tough love. It’s almost heartbreaking

Detroit Free Press

It was hard to hear. It was like listening to parents admit their children were delusional, reaching far beyond their grasp.

I’m gonna hit four home runs in my first Little League game! I’m gonna win the science fair with some baking soda and vinegar! I’m gonna ask Santa for Detroit Tigers playoff tickets!

Yet there they were last week, Steve Yzerman and Derek Lalonde — this city’s hockey dads — telling us they never envisioned their gutty mites, those lovable little Detroit Red Wings, being good enough to make the playoffs this season.

“I think I was very realistic with my expectations with this team,” Lalonde told reporters Friday after his first season as the Wings’ coach. “I did not have this team — I have no problem saying it now and I would have never said this to this group all year — I didn’t see this as a playoff team.”

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Yzerman agreed.

“But going into the season, did I expect us, was the goal to make the playoffs?” the Wings’ fourth-year general manager said. “Did I expect us to make the playoffs? No, I didn’t.”

Honestly, I agreed with Lalonde and Yzerman before the season. Most fans and reporters probably did, too. I doubt many reasonable people expected the Wings to make the playoffs. But I wouldn’t have been shocked if they did, ironically because Yzerman made enough moves to fortify the roster and Lalonde installed a solid scheme.

But here’s the part that broke my heart last week. Lalonde said players came to him shortly before the March trade deadline and were optimistically still clinging to hope, like Leo DiCaprio holding on to that door in the ocean thinking he might make it through the night.

“I remember the leadership core came to me and we were flirting with .500, competitive, much improved in a lot of areas,” Lalonde said. “And they’re like, ‘We’re in a good spot. If we can go 9-3 these next 12 games, we’ll be right there.’

And I’m like ‘Absolutely.’ Well, pushing back in my mind, I’m looking at the schedule and I’m like, ‘I don’t realistically see that happening.’ ”

The crazy thing is the Wings almost did it. They went 7-1 and held a wild-card spot on Feb. 23 before they lost three straight: A well-played 3-0 loss to Tampa Bay followed by consecutive bad losses to Ottawa that might have bigger organizational repercussions than anyone realizes right now.

At the time, the losses to the Senators, by a combined score of 12-3, confirmed to Yzerman how far the Wings were from being a true playoff contender, and that he needed to sell at the trade deadline.

On Monday, Andrew Copp spoke with reporters and explained that those losses highlighted the difference between a playoff-hungry team like the Senators and a playoff-hopeful team like the Wings.

“And Ottawa played it like it was Game 1 of the first round that you’re going to see tonight,” Copp said, “where they’re maybe running around a little bit, finishing hits maybe a little late. Not necessarily late enough to get a call, though. And they were they were living right on the edge.

“And I think that they almost got rewarded for living on the edge with a couple of ticky-tack calls. And then we were kind of shell-shocked after that, you know?”

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You see it all the time in hockey. The hungrier team that plays with ferocity and purpose can find an advantage over a better, faster, stronger, more-skilled team. It’s why the Los Angeles Kings, even without defenseman Drew Doughty, nearly eliminated Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the rest of the Oilers in last year’s first-round series. It’s why Lalonde and Yzerman admitted the team needs to get tougher.

I get where Yzerman is coming from. He’s trying to build a team that can win in a sustainable way, make the playoffs regularly and eventually be good and deep enough to win the Stanley Cup. He doesn’t want to be a one-hit wonder and hold onto pending free agents just to squeak into the playoffs and get wiped in four games in a tough Eastern Conference that has won five of the past seven Cups.

But Yzerman shouldn’t ignore what the leadership core told Lalonde, or how the players came close to meeting their lofty goal. I’m convinced if the Wings had kept Tyler Bertuzzi, Filip Hronek, Oskar Sundqvist and Jakub Vrana, they would have made the playoffs. And I’m not the only one.

“So I think there was some belief that, you know, we could do it,” Copp said. “And I definitely had that belief, too, that we would have had a real chance of making the playoffs if we hadn’t done what we did (at the trade deadline).”

Again, just making the playoffs probably wouldn’t have been good enough for Yzerman, who said after the trade deadline: “I was not going to be a buyer under any circumstance. Not this year.”

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Wings are going to be better next year, that they can only get better with more experience and draft picks and signings, because there’s always the possibility of regression, injuries and the slower-than-expected prospect development.

But I will tell you that Lalonde revealed an important aspect of the team’s growth. Even if he didn’t believe before the season that this was a playoff team, he saw how far his players’ conviction about their potential took them.

“It was my job to push them there and get them there,” he said of the playoffs. “But man, this group thought they could get there. And I think that’s why you saw them there.”

As for those losses to the Senators, they’ll stick with this team for a while. Copp and others will make sure of it, knowing that context matters and losing the wrong way at the wrong time in front of a GM with a penchant for selling can only lead to one thing.

“But I think we’ll learn from that experience for sure,” said Copp, who missed the playoffs for the first time in his nine seasons in the NHL. “And I’m looking forward to the next time we’re in that position to, like I said, learn from how those two games went and hopefully come out the other side feeling a little bit better about ourselves.”

Maybe not feeling as good as watching Javier Báez lead the Tigers to a division title would. But better, for sure.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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