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It's time to embrace fun, the soft middle, and realistic expectations for the Detroit Red Wings
For new coach Derek Lalonde "playoffs" is a dirty word, but for the right reasons.
While watching a drill from the neutral zone on Wednesday, new Detroit Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde turned to a group of players on the bench and reminded them of the importance of the forechecking exercise.
“This is our identity,” Lalonde said, loud enough for the wandering ears of media members to pick up. “This right here.”
It wasn’t flashy and without Lalonde’s grand statement to his players, you might not have thought anything further about it.
To the untrained eye, it was organized chaos, but to the Red Wings coach, it represents a path to success in his first season after leaving a modern-day NHL dynasty in Tampa Bay.
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And success is a tricky definition, especially for the Red Wings who are in the soft middle between tanking and being a Stanley Cup contender. Typically teams want to avoid the soft middle, it’s a place you can get stuck in for years — too good to capitalize with draft capital, never good enough to win or attract the marquee free agents.
But Lalonde and Wings general manager Steve Yzerman see it as a necessary step to contending in the not-to-distant future. Lalonde defined success this week as the Red Wings' younger players getting better and the team playing meaningful games late in the regular season.
He brushed off the mention of making the playoffs, not because he doesn’t want to win, but because he’s a realist that it will likely take 100 points to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. And when you look at the Atlantic Division, even if you have the darkest hue of Red Wings’ colored glasses, do you see a path to the playoffs for Detroit in this field?
That can be a frustrating idealogy for a fan — fans want to win it all, every year. But the proper context is both important and can add some fun wrinkles to following a team.
The Red Wings won’t win the Stanley Cup this season, but they will be fun. And hockey is a game, and to quote Tom Selleck in Mr. Baseball, “games are supposed to be fun.”
Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond were already fun last season. During the 2022-23 season, they’ll be the centerpieces of a core of young, talented players that are still learning the league.
Joe Veleno and Elmer Soderblom are going to make mistakes, and that’s ok because they’ll be allowed to learn from those mishaps — even if they spend time in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins — because both the coach and GM know it’s part of the larger plan.
This takes us back to the identity-defining drill Lalonde had Detroit run at practice on Wednesday. Throughout the drill, Lalonde would let players make mistakes, but he’d stop to correct and teach before that player went again, it’s a less brash approach — some coaches are hard on the whistle in that situation — and one that can be effective in building a rapport with a player.
It was reminiscent of Lalonde’s opening press conference in Detroit, where he said he wanted to get to know each player and what their “why” was. Why do you play this game? Why do you feel motivated? Why can be a simple, but powerful question when used in the right way.
And Lalonde’s why, based on my viewing of how he’s run Red Wings preseason and talking to Detroit players over the past couple of weeks, is to teach and be patient. He’s not going to get too excited or dismal at any specific moment, the good will come with the bad, and with proper consistency, the positives will outweigh the negatives in the long run.
When the Red Wings open the season on Friday against the Montreal Canadiens, they may play to their identity. They may be aggressive on the forecheck, they may turn pucks over, and the young talent may sparkle. But it’ll be one game, the first half of a back-to-back and of a series of three games in four nights. How Detroit does over that sample size will be more telling of any identity and if the team has anything close to the required consistency it’ll need to be playing meaningful games in March or April.
And if those meaningful games in March and April turn into playoff games, it’ll be a success. If they don’t and Detroit misses the cut, which is more likely, it will just be part of the long-term plan and will also be considered a success by those within the organization.
It’s the odd time when a team actually wants to be in the mushy middle, but also has a long-term goal on how to rise above it.