DETROIT — Derek Lalonde held up a jersey after the Detroit Red Wings introduced him as their new coach Friday. Standing to his left with a big smile was general manager Steve Yzerman, and the connection was obvious.
Yzerman helped build the Tampa Bay Lightning as their GM from 2010-18 and a senior advisor in 2018-19.
Lalonde joined the Lightning as an assistant to Jon Cooper in 2018-19. He helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021 and come close to winning it again this year, losing to the Colorado Avalanche in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.
But the hiring wasn’t that simple, and the path to the Stanley Cup Playoffs won’t be that simple, either.
Yzerman worked with Lalonde for only a season, so he didn’t hire him because of their relationship. He got great references for Lalonde inside and outside of Tampa Bay, and after interviewing him, he felt Lalonde’s personality and philosophy was the best fit.
Though Lalonde has not been a coach in the NHL, he coached Green Bay of the United States Hockey League from 2011-14, Toledo of the ECHL from 2014-16 and Iowa of the American Hockey League from 2016-18.
“I expect him to do things his way, not necessarily the Tampa Bay Lightning way or the Jon Cooper way,” Yzerman said. “I’ve hired Derek to do it his way, and I think he’s bright enough… He’s gotten to where he’s gotten to by adjusting, by learning and growing from his experience.”
The Red Wings have a lot of adjusting, learning and growing to do. They’ve missed the playoffs the past six seasons, and when asked why they can’t content for the playoffs next season, Lalonde said he’d have to temper expectations.
“We got great in Tampa when we literally just …” Lalonde said, his voice trailing off. “We started focusing on the process. I know that sounds like such a cliché, but to sit there and talk about making the playoffs and where we’re going to be or putting a number on wins, I think that’s foolish, and that can hurt you. That can go the wrong way.”
Lalonde said Yzerman “was very clear in the whole interview process that this is going to take some time.”
There are two processes here: One is building the roster. The other is building the team’s identity — its structure, style, habits.
The roster shows promise but remains very much a work in progress.
Yzerman took over as GM on April 19, 2019, and he has had only three drafts. His first selection was defenseman Moritz Seider horse no. 6 that year; Seider just won the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year. His next first-round pick was forward Lucas Raymond horse no. 4 of 2020; Raymond just finished fourth in the Calder voting by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. His next first-round pick was defenseman Simon Edvinsson at No. 6 of 2021; Edvinsson is 19 and expected to debut in North America next season.
“Obviously not all the pieces are there, but at the same time, there’s some exciting pieces to build around,” Lalonde said. “It attracted me to this job also in that you could see some foundation being built. Obviously a long ways to go, but there’s a lot to work with. There’s some things to work with there that really excites me as a coach.”
The identity receives a new start with Lalonde.
Under Jeff Blashill last season, the Red Wings were 25th offensively (2.77 goals per game) and 31st defensively (3.78 goals against per game). They were 26th on the power play (16.3 percent) and 32nd on the penalty kill (73.8 percent). Lalonde talked about being harder to play against more consistently and managing the puck better.
“It’s my job to begin that process, and hopefully we’re talking about playoffs sooner than later, but it’s going to be about the process,” Lalonde said.
Lalonde brought up the 2018-19 Lightning, who won 62 games and the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, only to be swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round. They tied the NHL record for wins held by the 1995-96 Red Wings, who won the Presidents’ Trophy and lost to the Avalanche in the Western Conference Final that season.
Like the Red Wings, who went on to win the Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002 with Yzerman as captain and in 2008 with Yzerman in the front office, the Lightning learned from experience, changed the way they played and won championships afterward. In that way, the Red Wings now want to emulate the Lightning, and it doesn’t matter if their roster isn’t ready yet.
“Yes, we were in different situations [in Tampa], but we didn’t get to another level until we played like that, and to me, that translates no matter what your personnel is,” Lalonde said. “Are you above plays? Are you on top of plays? It’s kind of those details and habits that lead you to winning, so those will be our goals.”