Perhaps the answer was right in front of us all along.
“I find it difficult to hire people that you don’t really know,” Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman told the media in regards to who he might hire as the successor to former head coach Jeff Blashill. He elaborated further by mentioning that he prefers to hire individuals that have worked with him and know how he likes things to be done.
So when the news came out that Yzerman had hired Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde to be the Red Wings’ 28th coach in franchise history, everything began to make sense – the long wait to hire the next coach, his comments about preferring people he knows, all of it. Now that we know what Yzerman was thinking in regards to this hire, the attention now shifts to what Lalonde is thinking in regards to his new role.
“Make no mistake: this is a huge, huge honor and a huge responsibility,” Lalonde told Red Wings radio commentator Ken Kal. He further commented that he lost some sleep last week during the Stanley Cup Final because he stayed up to watch the recent ESPN documentary about the Red Wings’ rivalry with the Colorado Avalanche, Unrivaled.
Lalonde is a first-time head coach in the NHL. The pressure that comes along with that distinction is a monster in and of itself, but there is also a ton of pressure that comes along with coaching an Original Six franchise – especially the only one that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2016. Morale across “Hockeytown” is pretty high despite that fact, and hearing a new voice and seeing a fresh face behind the bench is a big reason for that high morale.
Lalonde’s challenge in this new position is multi-faceted. Winning Yzerman over is no small task, but even having the GM in your corner isn’t enough if the on-ice product doesn’t live up to the fans’ expectations – just ask the guy that Lalonde is replacing. Here are just three of the many challenges that the new coach faces as he looks to put his stamp on this Red Wings team.
1. Win Over the Red Wings’ Locker Room
While Yzerman seemingly shot down this rumor during his season-end press conference, there were whispers that Blashill had lost the Red Wings’ locker room. It is certainly possible – not many coaches can hold the same post for seven years without their message getting a little stale. With that in mind, it’s important to note that Lalonde seems to approach his job in a similar manner to his predecessor.
Lalonde calls himself a “relationship-based” coach. For him, the foundation of a healthy locker room is establishing trust and understanding between the players and the coaching staff. He told the media at his introductory press conference that he intends to get in contact with every player on the Red Wings’ roster over the coming days and have some informal conversations that begin to establish a relationship between him and his players.
“I’m going to care about the guys,” Lalonde said. “We’re going to have a very good relationship, I’m going to want to have a relationship, I’m going to want to get to know the guys. Then when those hard conversations do come about, maybe there’s some trust there.”
Furthermore, when talking about how he contributed to the Lightning’s success during his tenure there, he mentioned things like “minimizing risk” in their game, and learning good habits while unlearning bad ones. All of these terms will sounds familiar to this Red Wings team – the last guy preached a lot of the same principles.
The proof is in the pudding, though. Establishing relationships is one thing. Producing results on the ice is another. The Stanley Cup rings on Lalonde’s fingers will certainly carry a lot of weight in Detroit’s locker room, and the players in that locker room will be dealing with a man who has enjoyed the level of success that they all hope to get a taste of. While he may approach his job similarly to his predecessor, the mandate from Yzerman has been clear since the offseason began: similar results are not acceptable.
Upon earning the trust of his players, the most obvious area where Lalonde needs to improve the Red Wings is in the defensive end. After all, the Red Wings’ leaky defensive play this season is what ultimately created the job opening that he has now filled. With a goals-against per-game of 3.78 last season (only the Montreal Canadiens posted worse numbers) the bar for improvement isn’t exactly set very high, but it is now Lelonde’s job to get those numbers into respectable territory. And all of this is without mentioning the team’s poor special teams play that has plagued them for years now.
There are numerous issues to fix with this team, but Lalonde can’t hope to fix any of them without first getting on the same page as his players. Once he does that, the real work begins.
2. Develop the Red Wings’ Prospects/Young Players
As is the case with any rebuilding team, the impetus is on the head coach to develop the team’s youngest and brightest talents. Headlined by Calder Trophy-winner Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, the Red Wings have a number of quality young players and prospects, and their development is the key to getting this franchise back to where it wants to be. Those two players, as well as the aforementioned prospects they have coming up, are what made this job an attractive one for Lalonde.
“Being on an opposing bench, and you ask about [Seider and Raymond] specifically, yes you can see some talent, but I saw some compete and some swagger and attitude that got me very excited,” Lalonde said.
Most expect 19-year-old defenseman Simon Edvinsson to push hard for a roster spot in the Fall. Same goes for soon-to-be 22-year-old winger Jonatan Berggren. Additionally, 21-year-olds Elmer Söderblom and Albert Johansson are also expected to garner some attention at training camp. The Red Wings were already one of the youngest teams in the league last season, and they’re expected to enter next season as an even younger group.
That’s where Lalonde and that process of learning good habits and unlearning bad ones comes in. It is incredibly hard to establish a culture of winning in any organization. Drafting and collecting numerous elite-level talents isn’t enough; that talent has to be molded into something greater, and the team as a whole has to buy-in on playing the right way not just for themselves, but for their teammates. The challenge facing the Red Wings’ new head coach is adding these prospects to the team, and then transforming them from good hockey players into winning hockey players. It won’t happen overnight – it may not even happen in one season – but making progress in this area is a non-negotiable if the Red Wings’ rebuild is going to end in the foreseeable future.
3. Lead the Red Wings Back to the Playoffs
From a casual fan’s perspective, this is the biggest challenge of all. The Red Wings made the playoffs every year of this writer’s life until 2017. There’s an entire generation of Red Wings fans that grew up with playoff hockey and don’t know the pain of the “Dead Wings” era – and the even fans that did suffer through that era are eager to see this rebuild end before we officially enter the “Dead Wings 2.0” era. Three years after Yzerman was introduced as the GM of the Red Wings, most fans still “trust the Yzerplan”, but the days of getting excited about top-10 draft picks are starting to run out.
Maybe the biggest reason why people are confident in a first-time head coach leading this Red Wings team is because of Yzerman. The GM hired Lalonde back when he was GM of the Lightning, and now he has hired him again for the Red Wings. Clearly Yzerman sees something in Lalonde. For a lot of fans, that’s enough.
For other fans, excitement is earned on the ice. We’re still a couple months away from having any sort of idea how this Red Wings team will look under Lalonde, but you better believe that fans expect that they’ll look better than they have over the last few years. Progress isn’t an option, it’s a mandate – from Yzerman, and from the fans that chanted “fire Blashill” in the final months of last season.
With that progress will come more wins. With those additional wins will come more points. While it seems likely that another playoff-less season lays ahead for the Red Wings in 2022-23, the expectation is that Detroit will compete on a nightly basis, and they’ll hang around the playoff picture for most of the season. By the end of next season, the light at the end of the tunnel should be clear as day for anyone to see.
That is a challenge that would scare away lesser coaches. Lalonde, to his credit, embraces that challenge.
“I want to win,” Lalonde said with Yzerman and team owner Chris Illitch at his sides. “I probably ultimately don’t accept this position if I don’t see winning somewhere along the way and being a big part of that.”
The fact of the matter is that we don’t know how Lalonde will fare in his first opportunity as a head coach in the NHL. He has won at every level he has coached at, but so did the guy who came before him. The opportunity ahead of him is immense, but so are the expectations.
There will be many challenges ahead for him, but if he can rise to task in regards to the three challenges listed here, it’ll go a long way towards winning over Hockeytown and proving that Yzerman was right to give him the keys to the kingdom.