Red Wings’ Coaching Comes Into Question During Playoff Push

The Hockey Writers

Perhaps it’s a product of higher expectations. Perhaps it’s because there’s a sense of déjà vu spreading across Detroit. Regardless of its origins, it seems like more and more Detroit Red Wings fans are starting to lose faith in head coach Derek Lalonde and his staff.

In some ways, it’s a bit of a shocking development. After all, the Red Wings already have 36 wins this season which is their highest total since the 2015-16 season – the last time they made the playoffs. With 11 games remaining on their schedule, they are still very much a factor in the playoff race. This is what fans were hoping for when general manager Steve Yzerman hired Lalonde in the summer of 2022 after dismissing longtime head coach Jeff Blashill.

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In a vacuum, it sure seems like the Red Wings are right on schedule. However, despite the steps the teams has clearly taken this season, their worst habits, going back to the Blashill era, still seem to haunt them. This then begs the question: when is progress not enough? Just two seasons into his tenure in Detroit, is Lalonde already on borrowed time?

Red Wings Have Improved Under Lalonde

The Red Wings have taken noticeable steps forward since Lalonde took over last season. During the 2022-23 season, the team’s defensive play took a noticeable step forward from the previous season. They allowed 33 less goals over the course of 82 games, and that allowed them to be in the playoff race up until the week before the trade deadline. Considering the team’s poor defensive play in the 2021-22 season is what ultimately ended Blashill’s time behind Detroit’s bench, it was promising to see the Red Wings maintain some form of defensive structure for most of the season.

This season, the Red Wings’ offensive play is leaps and bounds ahead of any team in the Yzerman era. Their offense has ranked in the top-10 throughout the season, and that’s despite getting out-chanced on a fairly regular basis. Sure, the addition of offensive players like Patrick Kane and Daniel Sprong helps their cause, but the team’s improved special teams play as well as continued development from key players like Lucas Raymond have also propelled Detroit’s offense to levels it hasn’t seen in a generation.

The improvements to their offense is observable on a nearly nightly basis, but the improvements the Red Wings made on the defensive side of the puck last season sometimes seem absent. Their current goals-against average of 3.32 is just barely an improvement over last season’s mark (3.34). This is a bit puzzling because, generally, a higher offensive output typically leads to fewer goals allowed – as they say, the best defense is a good offense. For them to truly take the next step, they have to figure out how to put it all together; improved defense doesn’t mean much if you can’t score, and an improved offense doesn’t help if you can’t keep the puck out of your own net.

This conundrum doesn’t help Lalonde’s cause, but it isn’t the true cause of people turning on the second-year head coach.

Red Wings Collapse at the Worst Time…Again

In previous seasons, the team’s collapse around the trade deadline was almost expected. After all, when Yzerman took on the task of rebuilding the Red Wings, he inherited little in terms of impact players and prospects. The Red Wings teams of 2020 and 2021 were the worst to wear the winged wheel in decades, going back to the “Dead Wings” era from 1967 to 1983. Though fans always hope for the best, reality always smacked the Red Wings in the face by the trade deadline, if not way sooner: you need a lot of talent to be a playoff contender, and the Red Wings simply didn’t have enough.

This season’s team is different though. When healthy, they have four lines that can create pressure in different ways, and a defensemen in Seider that faces the toughest defensive minutes in the league but still manages to hold his own (from “16 Stats: The Eastern playoff race, the other Nylander and difficult defensive minutes”, The Athletic, 3/21/24). The rest of the defense is a mostly-veteran crew that have played dozens of playoff games, some of which were with the Stanley Cup on the line. This is the most talented crew to wear the winged wheel since the dying days of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg leading the charge for the Red Wings.

Prior to this season’s trade deadline, the Red Wings were in the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Not only were they above the playoff threshold, they had a cushion of several points between them and the teams chasing them – oh, and they were within striking distance of the Toronto Maple Leafs and third place in the Atlantic Division. They were rolling along, seemingly defeating every team they encountered, and many folks were wondering if Yzerman would add at the trade deadline to give his team an even better chance at securing a playoff spot.

Instead, starting on Feb. 29, the Red Wings went on a seven-game losing streak where they were outscored by a total of 36-12.

More talent, same results.

“We Don’t Have That Guy That’s Going to Carry It….”

During that stretch, the deadline passed with the Red Wings standing pat aside from sending winger Klim Kostin to the San Jose Sharks in a housekeeping move. The message from Yzerman to his team was clear: for better or for worse, this is the group the Red Wings were going to press on with. Perhaps it was a mistake not to add any reinforcements to the roster, perhaps that losing streak was proof that this team isn’t worth investing future assets into for a playoff push – at least not yet.

Regardless, despite all the talent that Yzerman has added to the roster over the last two seasons, Lalonde’s Red Wings squandered prime playoff positioning and now find themselves with zero room for error with under a dozen games left to go in their season.

Derek Lalonde Detroit Red Wings
Derek Lalonde, Head Coach of the Detroit Red Wings (Evan Sabourin / The Hockey Writers)

Perhaps the most damning is that the Red Wings’ collapse came on the heels of the Red Wings’ spotlight at the Detroit Economic Club where several team representatives, including Yzerman, Lalonde, Dylan Larkin, Alex DeBrincat and Moritz Seider, spoke about the status of the team now and into the future. During that presentation, Lalonde mentioned that the Red Wings do not have any “one percent-ers” like Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov:

“No disrespect,” Lalonde said, “we have stars, and we have three of them sitting right here…we don’t have that guy that’s going to carry it, it’s been a team effort.”

Once the players had a chance to speak, Seider seemed to take exception to his coach’s analysis.

“Maybe we get a little argument with the coach after because I do believe we got some pretty damn good superstars on our team,” Seider said in response to a question about Lucas Raymond’s development. The team followed this up with a season-altering losing streak.

Lalonde’s “Honeymoon Phase” is Over

Perhaps there’s nothing to this; after all, correlation does not mean causation. Furthermore, the Red Wings’ depth chart took a massive hit when Larkin missed a little over two weeks following the team’s game on Mar. 2. His absence in the lineup certainly had a bigger impact on the team’s skid than anything that was said back in February. It isn’t too farfetched, however, to suggest that Lalonde’s comments rubbed the team the wrong way, especially because they came during the team’s most successful stint of the season.

When Larkin did leave the lineup, the Red Wings were unable to adapt, getting shutout twice during that losing streak, including a winnable game against an Arizona Coyotes team that was in the middle of a rough stretch of their own. Any team would find it harder to win games without their captain and top center, but the best teams – and the best coached teams – gameplan accordingly and give themselves a chance to overcome a high level of adversity like that. The Red Wings did not; their defensive play was uninspired and their offense suddenly looked like strangers playing a pick-up game together for the first time.

That’s on coaching. Either the team wasn’t and hasn’t been prepared to play, or they aren’t buying into whatever the coaching staff is selling. The team certainly shoulders their fair share of the blame, but to endure lifeless, embarrassing losses with the playoffs on the line is a tough look for a team that was supposed to be leaving those types of games in the past.

But one look back to the past shows how far this team has come under Lalonde’s watch. He deserves credit for overseeing the growth of Raymond and Seider, as well as the Red Wings’ progress as a whole. Hockey history is filled with coaches who did a lot less with a lot more than what Lalonde has to work with.

Less than two years into his tenure, Lalonde’s Red Wings are in the playoff race. In other years, that might have been enough to endear him to fans indefinitely. But in a year where fans’ hunger for playoff hockey is rumbling throughout the city of Detroit, where they finish – or perhaps how they finish – could shape public opinion of “Newsy” for the foreseeable future.

In other words, it’s just another month in the life of an NHL head coach.

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