Derek Lalonde & Red Wings Hope to Take a Big Step in Year 2

The Hockey Writers

In some ways, Derek Lalonde was playing with house money in his first season as the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. The coach he replaced was highly unpopular with the fanbase, his name is on the Stanley Cup twice as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he was hand-picked by general manager Steve Yzerman to lead the Red Wings into the next phase of their rebuild. Barring a huge step backwards or a personal meltdown, Lalonde’s first season was almost guaranteed to be viewed as a success right from the get-go.

Luckily, Lalonde’s first season was indeed a success, and not just because he had a ton of good will to operate with. The Red Wings’ defensive play was decisively better, and they remained in the playoff race right up until the trade deadline. For the first time in almost a decade, the Red Wings were a fun team to follow throughout the regular season, and even though they fell short of the playoffs for the seventh-straight season, there were enough encouraging signs from that season to believe that the team is set to improve even more in his second season behind the bench.

Derek Lalonde Detroit Red Wings
Derek Lalonde, Detroit Red Wings Head Coach (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

But that does not mean Lalonde is without areas to improve. After all, he is still a relative newcomer as a head coach in the NHL given that last season was his first in that role. Just as the Red Wings are a team on the rise, he is a coach on the rise that could receive some leaguewide attention if he and his team can take the step they all want to take.

Lalonde, Red Wings Face Higher Expectations

The Red Wings’ 35 wins last season was their highest total since their 41-win season back in 2015-16. On a similar note, the team’s 237 goals was their highest total since they scored 239 back in 2011-12. The 2022-23 Red Wings may have finished with a minus-38 goal-differential, but their improvement over recent Red Wings teams was noticeable on a nearly-nightly basis.

With things moving in the right direction, Yzerman added more than a handful of pieces to this season’s group that should help continue the team’s upward trajectory. In on defense are Shayne Gostisbehere, Justin Holl and Jeff Petry. Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg were replaced in goal by James Reimer and Alex Lyon. And up front, Alex DeBrincat, J.T. Compher, Klim Kostin, Daniel Sprong and Christian Fischer have all joined the mix. That’s a lot of bodies, and that’s a lot of NHL experience. In fact, a look at the Red Wings’ projected roster for this fall reveals that this isn’t a young group anymore, with the team’s youngest players being Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, both of which are about to embark on their third seasons in the NHL.

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With that kind of experience at his disposal, Lalonde will now be expected to get as much out of his veteran group as they have to offer. When your team is mostly filled with young players still finding their footing in the NHL, mistakes are to be expected and the playoffs are more of a hope and a prayer than anything else. With veterans up and down the lineup, the team should be far less unpredictable and the word “playoffs” shouldn’t be met with instant pushback and talk of managing expectations.

When Lalonde was introduced as the Red Wings’ new head coach back in the summer of 2022, he was quick to pump the brakes on talk of ending the team’s playoff drought. He was pleased with the overall results from last season despite missing the playoffs because his team took steps in the right direction and played meaningful games late into the season.

Moral victories won’t cut it anymore, however. Not with the group of players Lalonde has available to him, including the team’s deep pool of prospects.

Lalonde Must Identify When Change Is Needed

Despite implementing a number of changes that resulted in the Red Wings’ overall improvement last season, Lalonde’s first season was not without its flaws. Perhaps the biggest area in need of improvement is his overall level of patience.

Jeff Blashill, Lalonde’s predecessor, became known for his itchy trigger finger in terms of switching up the lineup. The “Blashill Blender” would result in lines being shuffled up at the earliest sign of trouble, which in turn led to players not being able to establish chemistry with each other unless they had already proven to be successful together in the past. Blashill was criticized for his refusal, at times, to be patient and allow his players to develop chemistry, especially during a period of their rebuild where current success was not necessarily as important as laying the foundation for future success.

During the 2022-23 season, there were times and situations where Lalonde’s approach felt like an overcorrection to this problem.

Lalonde favored consistency from one game to the next, and that approach had its benefits. Former Red Wings defenseman Filip Hronek had a career-best season due, in part, to having a consistent, defensively-sound partner in Olli Määttä throughout the first half of the season. That allowed Yzerman to sell high on Hronek ahead of the trade deadline, netting a first and second round pick from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for the Czech defenseman.

On the other hand, the Red Wings’ top pairing to start the season was Seider alongside newcomer Ben Chiarot. While there were a few exceptional games along the way, that pairing generally did not perform the way Lalonde or anyone else would expect a top pairing to perform. The two were regularly out of sync, and there were times where Seider looked like he was regressing after being named the NHL’s rookie of the year the previous season. Despite that fact, Lalonde kept them together through the end of 2022. As the calendar flipped to 2023, Lalonde made an adjustment and replaced Chiarot with Jake Walman. Together, Walman and Seider were highly effective through the rest of the season, and Seider became the first Red Wings defenseman since Nick Lidstrom to post back-to-back 40-point seasons to begin his career.

There is a happy medium between the “Blashill Blender” and whatever alliterative thing Lalonde had going on last season. Lalonde should definitely afford his players the opportunity to establish chemistry with each other – especially given how many new faces there will be this season – but he also shouldn’t wait until half of the season is over before changing what isn’t working. Yzerman has given Lalonde plenty of players to work with and, if last season is any indication, the lineup will evolve over time as the coaching staff finds out what works, what doesn’t, and which players are capable of filling which roles.

Lalonde’s Huge Opportunity

The Red Wings have not made it to the playoffs since Blashill’s first season behind the bench. Despite all the additions to the Red Wings’ depth chart, their playoff drought is far from guaranteed to end this season. The Atlantic Division remains as tough as ever; while the Boston Bruins are going to find out what life is like without Patrice Bergeron, the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators are both eager to take the Bruins’ place in the division’s hierarchy. The Lightning had a whole offseason to rest and reset for another championship run, the Florida Panthers are reigning Eastern Conference champions, and the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to be a force to be reckoned with as well.

All of that is to say that Lalonde and the Red Wings could improve on last season’s results and still fall short of the postseason. If last season’s goal was to play meaningful games into March, this season’s goal has to be to play meaningful games in April. That would ideally lead to a spot in the playoffs, and if that is the end result, Lalonde’s name will probably pop up in discussions about who could win the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach.

But that conversation is for another day. Right now, the man the players and media call “Newsy” is preparing himself for what should be an exciting year two behind the bench. With another year of experience and returning players knowing what to expect from their bench boss and his systems, Lalonde and the Red Wings seem poised to prove that last season’s improvements were just the tip of the iceberg.

This is the season Lalonde will really begin to show everyone why he was Yzerman’s pick to see this team through the end of their rebuild.

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