To a man, the Red Wings know what was said about them this summer. Derek Lalonde brought it up before the season even began: "No one -- and I mean no one -- has given us a chance to make the playoffs. There’s not a single projection or a single expert out there who thinks we can."
So here was Moritz Seider, Detroit's best young player, after the club's 4-0 win over the Blue Jackets earlier this month: "We know what we have in here and we’re here to prove a lot of people wrong. It’s always fun to prove them wrong and have them second-guessing their opinions. We’re really confident, but we’re a quiet locker room."
Six games into this season, the Red Wings are starting to make noise. They're 5-1 and lead the NHL in goals, after ranking 24th in that category last season and dead last over the first four seasons of Steve Yzerman's tenure as GM. They also have the NHL's second best power play, after it ranked 17th last season and third to last over the prior four seasons. Yzerman added scoring depth this summer, and the proof is in the pucks that keep winding up in the net.
One of those additions is forward Daniel Sprong, who will play his former team Tuesday night when the Red Wings host the Kraken. Sprong enjoyed his time in Seattle but said he was seeking a "different opportunity" after scoring 21 goals in limited ice time across 66 games last season. He has two goals and four points through six games in Detroit while playing an additional two minutes per night. That includes a role on the power play.
Sprong, 26, was part of a free agent class that also featured forwards J.T. Compher and Christian Fischer and defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Justin Holl, to go with trade acquisitions Alex DeBrincat, Klim Kostin and Jeff Petry. The Red Wings had eight new players in their lineup on opening night, which happens to be the last time they lost.
"You look at the guys we brought in, J.T., Fisch, Ghost, Hollsy, myself, we brought in some guys that can put the puck in the net and play a fast game, and with the guys here, Razor, Seids, Larks, Copper, we brought in Cat, too. And this team really wasn’t healthy last year, either. They had a lot of injuries. We play as a team, we have depth. If you look at the lineup compared to last year, there’s a lot of changeover but I think we’re clicking really well together," said Sprong.
Sprong learned first-hand last season what depth can do for you. The Kraken, in their second year of existence, racked up 100 points, beat the defending champs in the first round of the playoffs and took the Stars to seven games in round two, without a single player close to superstar status in the NHL. Their top scorer, James McCann, only had 70 points; he also had 40 goals. The Kraken had six players who scored at least 20 goals, and 13 who scored 13-plus, which is how they wound up scoring the sixth most goals in the league and challenging the notion that you can't win big without a roster littered with stars.
"That's a top team, a playoff team," said Lalonde. "It’s four lines, everyone contributes, it’s depth. They play north, they play fast, they play hard."
Sound familiar? The Red Wings are following the same blueprint, with the possibility of constructing a contender if DeBrincat and Dylan Larkin keep producing like they have and Seider continues his ascent toward the NHL's elite. They actually might have more star potential than the Kraken, who have only started slowly this season due to some bad luck. As Sprong said, "They just haven’t scored. And if you’re not scoring in this league, you’re not winning many games. Let’s be realistic here."
No one is more realistic than Lalonde. While the Wings are playing well, he'll remind you that they won't keep playing like this. And that even if they do, they won't keep winning like this, because they won't keep scoring like this. They're already due for some regression, starting with a shooting percentage of 16 percent. (The Oilers led the NHL last season at 11.8 percent. The Wings came in at 10.3). The challenge will be staying within themselves when it arrives.
"Things are going to regress and some things aren’t sustainable, but I do think habits are," said Lalonde. "You want a start like this. Do you expect to go 5-1, especially with the type of competition we’ve played? No. But we've done a lot of quality things, not perfect by any means, but we’ve been rewarded. Process over outcome and fortunately, right now, we’ve been getting outcomes."
If Lalonde has been mildly surprised by the Wings' start, Sprong hasn't. In fact, he chafes at that notion: "Maybe to the media it is. But not to us." Then he echoed Seider: "It’s always nice proving people wrong."
"It’s a good start to the year, but we still have a lot of games to go. But that’s the motivation in this room, we want to be an above-the-line team, we want to be a playoff team. To do that, you’re going to have to put games together, you’re going to have to win your back-to-backs like we did over the weekend. But we gotta stick together here and play as a team and continue playing to our structure."
The Wings' new skaters added 3,359 games of NHL experience to Detroit's roster this offseason, or about 57 full seasons. They are an older team that played like adults last weekend, overcoming last season's meltdown against the Senators with an emphatic win in Ottawa on Saturday and backing it up a day later with probably their best game of the season in a rout of the Flames. Four points in the bag, for a team that in recent seasons may have wound up with none. And take it from Sprong: "At the end of the year, those are the points that matter."
So far, the Wings have goals from 14 different players, and 30 as a team. It took them 10 games to reach those totals last season. Their goaltending has been better after a rocky start, as well as their blueline. They won't have Petry Tuesday night for the second straight game due to an upper-body injury, but their defensive corps shoulder suffer.
"We have seven D that can play, our four lines can score and that makes it hard matchup-wise on the road, at home, we can play against anyone," said Sprong. "It's good, we’re playing as a team and that’s what you saw last year in Seattle. Again, no one expected us last year to make the playoffs or really even do well. I remember we played Colorado and everyone expected us to lose in four or five games, so it’s fun proving the media wrong. It’s sh**ty to say, but it’s a good feeling. We know what we have and we knew what we had in that locker room, and we believe in this locker room as well."
It's only six games. The playoff drought is seven years. No one's suddenly penciling the Red Wings into the postseason after a 5-1 start. But those who crossed them out before the season began are likely thinking twice. The goal in that locker room is "to make the playoffs," said Sprong. The doubt on the outside is just noise. Of course, who wouldn't want to drown it out?