DETROIT — The Maple Leafs have given Derek Lalonde a scare before.
They almost ended his Tampa Bay Lighting’s season in the first playoff round last year when he was Jon Cooper’s assistant after some of the toughest regular season games the two-time Stanley Cup champions encountered.
Now, as the new head coach of an evolving Red Wings’ team that’s hard-pressed to make the playoffs, Toronto will be an even bigger obstacle for Lalonde.
“That’s the bar,” Lalonde said Friday morning before the first of two home-an-home exhibition games. “They’re as talented a team as you get. I loved the way they played last year and felt very fortunate to get through them in seven games (trailing in the third of Game 6 at home).”
He told Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe as much in the handshake line, unfortunately, a ritual the Leafs have repeated after a few Game 7s.
“They did everything right,” New York state native Lalonde said. “They’re a fun team to watch. I love their approach “
In a 6-2 Toronto win in Tampa late in the season, Auston Matthews had a hat trick and an assist.
“That was one of the most dominant performances,” Lalonde said. “He could have had six or seven goals. It was scary good. He took the game over.
“It’s good for anyone to compete against that, our young centres, our young defencemen. They’re one of the top teams in the league and obviously, we want to get there someday.”
On Friday, Lalonde’s team was getting a watered-down version of the Leafs, including many of their prime candidates for demotion, but were to face their leading pre-season scorer Nick Robertson and defenceman Rasmus Sandin in his first preseason game.
Defenceman Victor Mete took a shot off the leg in practice before the Leafs flew to Detroit and is unlikely to play, with young William Villeneuve ready to move in for the game.
The Wings expect Toronto’s full NHL lineup in the return engagement at Scotiabank Arena. The teams meet here during American Thanksgiving week and later twice in Toronto, including the final two weeks of the season. By then, Lalonde hopes the Wings are no longer in flux with positions undetermined from the crease through the centre.
The youngsters that general manager Steve Yzerman put through a rough baptism last year (defenceman Moritz Seider did win the Calder Trophy) have been bolstered by free agents and trades, They added Dominik Kubalik, David Perron, Andrew Copp and blueliners Ben Chiarot, Olli Maatta and Robert Hagg.
Ville Husso came from St. Louis to push Alex Nedeljkovic in net.
“I’m enjoying this, a young team on the up and up,” Chiarot said. “There are a lot of kids, but you have Yzerman running the show and you know he’s going to make moves to make the team better. That’s what you want as a player.
“Toronto is one of the top teams, then you have the two contenders in Florida, a lot of scoring power on all three and Ottawa has made a jump.
“So, for a team like ours, defending has to be a priority. We’re not going to out-score those teams (Detroit has just 15 goals in losing four of six pre-season games thus far), so playing strong defence is a mindset we’ll have to build into to compete in our (Atlantic) division.”
Another playoff miss for the Wings would tie the franchise futility record from 1971-77. Unexpectedly moving sideways last season cost Jeff Blashill his job behind the bench, Yzerman going with Lalonde, whom he knew from his successful stint in Tampa.
Copp has been out with an abdominal injury, which has skewed the second line centre picture behind captain Dylan Larkin. He hopes to be ready by the season opener next Friday, Detroit being among the last teams to get its schedule going.
Copp and all the newcomers came into a dressing room at Little Caesars Arena that has giant photos of Detroit greats, from Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuk to the Russian Five, above each player’s stall and a motif of all 11 of their Cups on the wall.
“It’s been really good developing chemistry with new linemates, but you never really know until a month or two into the season,” Copp said.
“There are a lot of young guys, but they’re talented and that means a bit more of competition for spots which always elevates guys’ games. It will be a very interesting first couple of weeks and months here.”