During his four seasons as an assistant coach in Tampa, Derek Lalonde felt pretty good by Thanksgiving. He knew that if the Lightning were in the playoffs at this point, they weren't missing them.
“If we were there at Thanksgiving, with the type of talent and depth and world-class players (we had) at every position, we were pretty comfortable we were going to make the playoffs,” Lalonde said this week. “This is pretty different, just being realistic with where our group’s at right now.”
In year one under Lalonde, the Red Wings enter Wednesday’s Thanksgiving Eve game against the Predators inside the playoff picture in the East. History says they’re a good bet to stay there. In the NHL’s 14 full seasons since the 2004-05 lockout, more than three quarters of the teams that were in playoff position on American Thanksgiving have wound up making the playoffs. It was 13 of 16 last year, and seven of eight in the East. (The Blue Jackets were the lone team to slip, replaced by the Penguins.)
The present says something different. So does Lalonde, who has tempered expectations from the moment he arrived and continues to tame the hype amid his team's strong start. Through 18 games – nearly a quarter of the season – Detroit is fifth in the East in points percentage. Its 9-5-4 record feels a lot better than 8-8-2 at this juncture last year, when the club was beginning to fade after a similarly strong start. The Wings were within striking distance of the playoffs on Thanksgiving and wound up missing them by a mile in a bear of a conference where eight teams hit at least 100 points.
The East might be deeper this year.
“You can see the projections,” Lalonde said Wednesday. “You’re still looking at eight, nine, 10 teams projecting for 100 points. I got this question (at my introductory press conference), how realistic is the playoffs? And my answer then and still now is, it’s not so much a reality of where we are, it’s the reality of where this conference is at. It’s one of those, ‘If we were in the West, we would be having a different conversation,’ which is no one’s fault. It’s just the reality of it.
“It’s exactly why we don’t look at the playoffs as a goal or a reality. Our goals are still the same: improve our team defense and play meaningful games as late into the season as we can.”
Indeed, the East is as strong as ever. The Devils have entered the fray with a 13-game win streak that began in Detroit last month, the Isles have re-entered the fray with a healthy roster and the Penguins and Panthers aren't hiding from anyone with their so-so starts. But the Red Wings are also stronger than they’ve been in years. After a slew of offseason additions by Steve Yzerman, this is Detroit’s best roster since Jeff Blashill’s first season behind the bench and the club’s last season making the playoffs.
“We’re just more competitive,” Moritz Seider said Wednesday. “We have more depth in our lineup. It doesn’t matter who’s out, we still find ways to win games. I think sometimes last year we would just give up – not give up, but we just couldn’t find a way to stay in the game and maybe even win it. I think that’s why we were leaking oil a little bit. If our top guys were out, we were struggling a bit.
“This year, it doesn’t matter if we’re down, if we’re up, we play our game, we play our style and put our game in the opponent’s face and it’s been working out good.”
David Perron has lived up to every bit of the $9.5 million deal he signed with the Red Wings in the offseason. Their improved personnel can be captured by the fact that he’s spent significant time on the third line. Suddenly, the team has 20-30-goal scorers scattered throughout its top nine forwards and, don't look now, a No. 1 center on pace for 100 points in Dylan Larkin. It has a respectable top four on the blue line, headlined by Seider and Ben Chiarot. And it has a solid tandem in goal, anchored so far by Ville Husso.
The Wings also summoned highly-regarded forward Jonattan Berggren from Grand Rapids earlier this month and the hope is that 19-year-old Simon Edvinsson, one of the best defensive prospects in hockey, isn’t far behind.
“It’s still a work in progress, but I think we’ve gotten very far,” said Seider, the reigning Rookie of the Year. “When you just look back at the last couple years, there’s steady progress, and we’re not done yet. I think we’re in a really good spot, but we always want to win more.”
That will be the challenge moving forward. As it is, the metrics say the Wings are due to regress. Lalonde will be the first to tell you that, which is why he told everyone last month to “pump the breaks” on playoff talk. In key five-on-five categories like shot attempts, scoring chances and expected goals for, Detroit ranks near the bottom the league. Its defensive numbers, in some areas, are worse than they were last year.
The Wings’ jump in the standings so far owes mostly to improved special teams and improved goaltending, which does owe to improved players. As they grow more comfortable with each other and with Lalonde’s system, imported from his time in Tampa, their five-on-five play should catch up. And then the playoff talk might be warranted.
“In the entire league, we’re (11th) in points (percentage). We’re not that, with our underlying numbers,” said Lalonde. “And we all know that. It’s skewed a little bit because we’ve had three or four games where we’ve literally given up 18, 20 goals (combined), but that’s true. That’s what we are. We have those moments. That’s not an accident. But for the most part, not only does our team defense feel much improved, it’s our commitment to our defense, which has led us to a good start so far.”
While it hasn’t always been pretty, the Wings have willed themselves to a number of points by competing like hell. Sometimes, playing defense is as simple as playing hard. This is where Lalonde is most encouraged by his team, especially compared to the end of last season when he acknowledged the Red Wings were dealing with “a depleted lineup, no chance of making the playoffs” and a lack of motivation to lay their bodies on the line. They had lost, as Lalonde like to say, their ‘Why.’ With something to play for again, they have found it.
“Blocking shots, winning battles, back-checking, getting above plays, not cheating or poaching, all those hard things you have to do to be successful, especially on nights where we’re not going to just out-talent a team," said Lalonde. "I was fortunate to be in Tampa where, if we didn’t play our best, our elite talent got us through some games. We’re not going to get many of those nights here.”
As more talent comes through the pipeline, that should change. And the Wings’ fluidity as a team should improve as the season wears on. In time, maybe by January or February, Seider might start checking the standings.
As badly as he wants “playoffs at LCA,” which should be rocking Wednesday night for Detroit’s first home game in two weeks, he doesn’t allow himself to start dreaming in November. The 21-year-old said he enjoys the “daily work way more than looking at any standings or any records.”
“But obviously,” he said, “we want to stay in the hunt and be one of the teams who actually makes it.”