As Derek Lalonde recalls, the Red Wings entered Game 58 last season having won seven of their last eight, the most recent a 4-1 dismissal of the Rangers. With nearly three quarters of the schedule behind them, they were firmly in the playoff race. They were tied in points with the Panthers for the final wild card spot in the East, with three games in hand -- and the Panthers would come within three games of winning the Stanley Cup, Lalonde will tell you.
Then it all ended. A three-game slide, including two ugly losses in Ottawa, precipitated a sell-off at the deadline and swelled to a six-game slide that tanked their season. Filip Hronek and Tyler Bertuzzi, once considered core pieces of the future, became part of the past as the Red Wings missed the playoffs for a franchise-worst seventh season in a row.
"We did the right thing at the deadline," Lalonde said Monday on 97.1 The Ticket. "It’s the reality of where we’re trying to be, not where we were at the moment. But this was a group that pushed last year and overachieved, and I don’t see why this group can't do that again, especially with some of our additions."
Indeed, subtracting last season became adding this summer. Steve Yzerman deepened every level of the roster in free agency, then swung one of the biggest moves of the offseason and filled arguably the biggest hole on his team by trading with the Senators for two-time 40-goal scorer (and lifelong Red Wings fan) Alex DeBrincat.
"A necessity," said Lalonde. "We had a lot of really good team games last year where we did a lot of things right and a lot of things that were asked of us, and we just couldn’t put it in the net. We would find ways to lose some of those tight games. We need goals and that’s something he can do, so it’s a necessity for us as an addition. "I love the fact that he wanted to be here. Very attractive piece for us."
Beyond DeBrincat, whose No. 1 trade destination was Detroit, the Wings filled out up front with J.T. Compher, a versatile, middle-six center, and Daniel Sprong and Kilm Kostin, who will add scoring and physicality on the wing. They deepened the backend with veterans Justin Holl, Shayne Gostisbehere and more recently Jeff Petry, and solidified the crease behind Ville Husso with solid backup candidates in James Reimer and Alex Lyon. All told, an upgraded roster.
Question is, by how much? Enough to close a 12-point gap on a playoff spot? Enough to jump several spots in a deep Atlantic Division? (The Wings finished seventh out of eight last season.) Or just enough to wind up short? Judging by projected point totals, the Red Wings still have a ways to go. Which, to Lalonde, is just more motivation to get there.
"I love what we did this offseason," he said. "We’ve improved, there’s no doubt about it. We’re going to be significant (in the playoff race). That’s all I ask, that’s all I want. We just gotta keep pushing in the right direction.
"That said, I also understand why there’s not a single projection or a single expert out there that says we’re going to make the playoffs. It’s on us now. We’ve added some nice pieces, but we're still not there. And what more motivation can you have as a group than that?"
The Red Wings should also get a boost this season from a few of their top prospects. Center Marco Kasper and defenseman Simon Edvinsson, former top-10 draft picks, debuted last season and will have every chance to make the team out of training camp. So will sniper Carter Mazur, the top winger in Detroit's pipeline. Edvinsson has yet to be fully cleared after undergoing shoulder surgery in May, said Lalonde, but his role "will be up to him." Camp starts in about three weeks.
Ultimately, the Red Wings will go as far as their core players carry them this season. They'll need another career year out of $70 million captain Dylan Larkin, significant returns on the $50 million investment behind him that we'll call 'Andrew Compher' and legitimate leaps from Mo Seider, Lucas Raymond and, maybe most importantly, Husso. That is how they'll catch the teams in front of them.
Lalonde, who coached the United States at the World Championships in May, said that Seider was dominant in helping Germany win silver. Detroit will need more of the same. And he said that Raymond, who struggled last season to match his rookie production, has made serious physical gains this summer: "He literally put on eight to nine pounds. He (doesn't) even look like the same athlete."
"They’re going to take natural steps of progression, and we’re going to push that," said Lalonde. "We want them to lead our team."
Where that team is going remains to be seen. The Wings are generally moving up in the East, but slowly. They're treading water in the Atlantic. Lalonde says it's "not a knock on us," just a reflection where things stand in the conference and the division: "There’s just nowhere to go." He points out that Detroit went 16-8-8 against the West last year, a 102-point pace over a full season.
"If we played in the West, we would have made the playoffs," said Lalonde. "What does that mean? We’re still not good enough to win the Stanley Cup. That’s Steve’s job to get us there. I’m a coach, I want it right now, but Steve reminds me all the time: 'When we get there, we want to be sustainable.'"
Still, the Red Wings have the pieces, for the first time in a long time, to push for a playoff spot this season. They shouldn't set their sights on anything less. After two aggressive summers in a row, they shouldn't accept another spring of watching hockey from home. Lalonde is right: It's on them now. They might not be contenders yet, but pretending is behind them.