Yzerman believes in Derek Lalonde, who believes in the Red Wings

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Derek Lalonde took the job, but he wouldn’t take the bait. Asked Friday at his introductory press conference about the Red Wings making a playoff push next season, the team’s new head coach replied, “I think I’d have to temper expectations.” It was a reasoned response, not a resigned one. Make no mistake: Lalonde believes in the Red Wings. He wouldn’t be here otherwise. He also believes in the Process with a capital ‘P,’ and he won’t let dreams of immediate success lead him astray.

“I know it sounds like such a cliché, but to sit there and talk about making the playoffs or putting a number on wins, I think that’s foolish and it can hurt you,” said Lalonde, sitting between Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman and owner Chris Ilitch. “For me, it’s going to be the process. If we take care of the process in doing the little things, if our team defense improves through our habits of stopping on pucks or our risk in our game in managing the puck, then we’ll be improved. But I don’t know if sitting here, that’s something that’s a goal or talked about.

“Deep down, of course we want to make the playoffs. We want to win, but we’re going to do it correctly. It’s my job to begin that process, and hopefully we’re talking about playoffs sooner than later.”

Lalonde, 49, embraced the Process in Tampa Bay. After the Lightning won an NHL-record 62 games (tied with the 95-96 Red Wings) in his first season as an assistant under Jon Cooper only to be swept in the first round of the playoffs, the coaching staff looked themselves in the eye. They critiqued their own principles and admitted that “we weren’t playing the right way,” said Lalonde, that “we were judging ourselves on the outcome of winning games” over the Process.

“Then we got to the playoffs and got smoked,” he said.

So the Lightning focused on improving their team defense. They committed to taking fewer risks, with and without the puck. They emphasized “those important habits of winning,” said Lalonde, and emerged as back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Which ultimately brought Lalonde to Detroit, where Yzerman is trying to re-instill winning habits in the Wings.

“Obviously Tampa was in a different spot than we are here; we were a win-now, championship caliber team,” said Lalonde. “But it was the same things that got us from good to Stanley Cup champion, the same type of habits within our team that we’re going to improve here. If you do those things, it should translate. It’s process, and then the outcome takes care of itself.”

At times last season, the Red Wings’ Process was sound. Lalonde took note of it from the other bench. But far too often it was broken. That led to the dismissal of Jeff Blashill, whose limitations in personnel couldn’t explain a total defensive collapse. The Red Wings gave up goals like they were going out of style. Yzerman couldn’t abide it. Ideally, Lalonde won’t allow it.

Yzerman said he spent the past two months researching and reviewing candidates from “all leagues and all levels of experience.” Ultimately, he reached the conclusion “that Derek fit all the areas that I felt were important and would be good for this team, where we are today and where we’re going in the near and far future.”

In the far future, the Red Wings will be going back to the playoffs. They have a rising young core to get them there. In the near future, they just need to go back to playing smart hockey, like they were during the first half of last season. That version of the Red Wings, said Lalonde, “was a really hard team to play against,” even for the two-time defending champs.

“So that gets you excited,” he said. “And obviously some of the young talent. I didn’t see them every day, but you see these guys play and the impact they make at such a young age, it’s very exciting. Obviously not all the pieces are there, but there are some exciting pieces to build around. It attracted me to this job that you could see a foundation being built. Obviously a long ways to go, but there’s a lot to work with.”

There is a No. 1 center in 25-year-old (and likely soon-to-be-extended) Dylan Larkin. There is a Rookie of the Year on the blueline in Moritz Seider; there was nearly another on the wing in Lucas Raymond. There are goal scorers in 26-year-old Jakub Vrana and 27-year-old Tyler Bertuzzi. And there is more talent on the way, including one of the top defensive prospects in the game in 19-year-old Simon Edvinsson and, further down the line, a potential front-line goalie in 6’6 Sebastian Cossa.

Lalonde calls himself “a relationship-based coach.” He said connecting with each one of his new players is his top priority in the coming day. He wants to get to know them on a personal level. Specifically, he said he wants “to get to know their ‘why:’ what drives them, what they want out of themselves and of this team.” Later in his press conference, the same question was posed to Lalonde: What’s your ‘why?’

“I want to win,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. Ultimately, I probably don’t accept this position if I don’t see winning down the road and being a big part of that.”

Yzerman believes in Lalonde, and Lalonde believes in the Wings. They both believe in the Process. There are two processes at play for Detroit. The larger one is up to Yzerman, building a team. Building an identity is up Lalonde. When they come together, the results will reflect it.

“What my career has allowed me to do is understand what it takes to win and the process that it can take to win,” said Lalonde. “It’s not an immediate thing. We learned that the hard way in Tampa. … But deep down, no question about it, my why is ultimately going to be about winning.”

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