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How the Red Wings built themselves back into a contender

Patrick Kane had his pick of suitors in free agency this fall. And he wholly embraced the courting process.

It was intuition, then, that ultimately drove Kane's decision. Because of all the offers he received on where to play next, only one team had it all -- and couldn't be ignored.

Kane's gut told the tale: He was going to be a Detroit Red Wing.

"The thing about Detroit was, anytime I really thought about any other team, I would always kind of come back to Detroit," said Kane. "There's a lot of good situations for you out there and you go back and forth with [some of them] and what you want to do in your head. But I kind of knew [Detroit] was in my heart, knew it was where I wanted to be."

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A year ago, that sentiment could have felt forced. But now? Consider Kane just one more member of the Red Wings' ever-increasing -- and increasingly star-studded -- bandwagon.

Detroit has been, after all, in a years-long period of transition. The Red Wings haven't been in the postseason since their record-setting run of 25 straight appearances came to an end in 2016. That bled into Detroit's current seven-year drought of playoff berths, a span that saw former head coach Jeff Blashill fired, a near-total overhaul of the club's roster and, recently at least, hope renewed that the Red Wings are finally getting somewhere.

It's clear Kane believes that's the case. But the three-time Stanley Cup champion was drawn to Detroit because of the groundwork laid before him -- by players who chose, before Kane did, to put their faith in the Red Wings rebuild.

Captain Dylan Larkin did that when he skipped unrestricted free agency altogether to sign an eight-year, $69.6 million contract extension last March. Alex DeBrincat did it when he inked a four-year, $31.5 million contract following a trade in July. J.T. Compher, fresh from a recent Cup-winning run of his own in Colorado, bet on Detroit in July too, agreeing to a five-year, $25.5 million pact.

And that's to say nothing of Detroit's rising young generation helmed by Lucas Raymond and Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider, both unabashedly happy to have been drafted on board. Or even the team's renewed vigor under Blashill's successor behind the bench, Derek Lalonde.

Slowly but surely, general manager Steve Yzerman has curated his vision for the Red Wings' future. It's required patience, and pivots, and a commitment to the bigger picture.

Detroit now looks ready for a breakthrough -- and to break away from its painful past stretch outside the playoff picture.

It didn't take long for Kane to see Detroit's potential. Getting on the inside, though, was an experience all its own.

"I think [the organization] has exceeded expectations," Kane said on the eve of his Red Wings' debut on Dec. 7. "Just as far as how close the guys are in the room, how friendly everyone is, how dialed in they are with player personnel and taking care of each individual player. That's very impressive, something I didn't know about them. It's impressive; it's a good fit."

DEBRINCAT STIFLES A SHREWD grin when the topic of Kane comes up.

They'd previously spent five years as teammates in Chicago and found enormous success playing on the same line (including DeBrincat's career-best 41-goal campaign in 2021-22).

It's no wonder DeBrincat tried to sell Kane on the Red Wings by sharing the positives of joining their group. And Kane himself told reporters that while DeBrincat's presence in Detroit wasn't "the biggest reason" behind his choice, it was a "big one."

And if that now leads to more ice time recapturing the magic with Kane then all the better for DeBrincat.

"It's great he's here," DeBrincat said. "He'll add another element of offense for us. He's a superstar and he can really change things in the lineup. It's fun to have him and I think everyone's excited he chose to be here."

Alex DeBrincat, left, and Patrick Kane are looking to bring back the good times in their new NHL home. Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

The rest of Detroit might say something similar about DeBrincat. The 25-year-old hit restricted free agency last summer after spending a season with the Ottawa Senators. DeBrincat was traded from Chicago to Ottawa in a blockbuster move at the 2022 NHL draft in Montreal, and while he was good for the Senators -- producing 27 goals and 66 points in 82 games -- DeBrincat quickly agreed to a four-year, $31.5 million contract once his rights were traded to the Red Wings.

That's how the forward raised 30 minutes outside Detroit in Farmington Hills wound up donning the local red and white. He'd trained with several of his now-teammates during summers. Plus, there was ample off-ice support in the area -- crucial for DeBrincat and wife Lyndsey with their growing young family (they welcomed son Archie in May 2022).

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Following the turbulence of being traded, here was a chance for DeBrincat to settle down. There was no better team to align with than Detroit.

"I just feel pretty comfortable here," he said. "And honestly, it's just felt relatively easy, an easy transition, for me and that's felt so good. I feel like we've meshed together [as a group] pretty well right off the start. There are other new guys here too, so I feel like everyone came in and we got to know each other pretty quick and it's been fun so far."

Beyond mere geography, it was the Red Wings' depth that drew DeBrincat to sign long term, too. Yzerman's been meticulous in adding the right pieces for Detroit's gains, and that's begun spitting out dividends in a big way.

The Red Wings started this season on a remarkable heater offensively, leading the league in goals scored (40) through their first 10 games, with the power play operating at 32.4%.

It's been DeBrincat and Larkin leading the charge stats-wise up front, but the likes of Raymond, Compher and Seider have made invaluable contributions across the board, too. It hasn't always been smooth sailing, though. After Detroit opened the season 5-1-0, they slumped to a 3-5-3 stretch that included a pair of losses in Sweden during the NHL's Global Series Showcase.

The Red Wings used that international disappointment as fuel for a North American comeback. DeBrincat said the team "refocused" with a short break post-Swedish excursion and went on a 6-1-0 run to reestablish their place as a top Atlantic Division contender -- but their rivals had already been commenting on Detroit's resurgence.

"Give them credit -- they really stuck to their game plan, got pucks deep and made it hard for us to get out of our zone and limited our o-zone time," Boston's Linus Ullmark said after Detroit handed the Bruins their first loss of the season on Nov. 4. "Sometimes you've got to tip your hat."

More than once, it turned out. Boston lost just twice in regulation through their first 19 games, and both times it was against the Red Wings. Given Boston's stance as a perennial contender, the early success helped boost Detroit's profile.

"They come out hard and play a simple and effective game," Bruins' forward Jake DeBrusk said. "They can capitalize, and they control momentum swings really well."

After dropping their first game to the Bruins this season, the Red Wings won the next two. Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

Those victories stand out for the Red Wings as examples of their ultimate capability, and that's hanging with the league's top-tier squads. The road has been rocky at times but Detroit's latched onto a collective approach when weathering the ups and downs of a season.

"I think we have a lot of depth that can score up and down the lineup, so when we do the little things, we have a good chance to win," DeBrincat said. "And I think that's been our motto right now. We've got to play the right way to make good things happen. I think we have a good team; we have a good group of guys in the locker room, and I think we can definitely do something special."

DeBrincat drops the term "identity" then, and how playing to that will help define the Red Wings' road from here. But what exactly will that look like now with a quarter of the year already behind them?

THERE'S A COMMON REFRAIN in the Red Wings' room.

Overall, guys like being around each other. That speaks to Yzerman's attempt at not only targeting great skaters but high character ones, too.

For Seider, the quality of those personalities began standing out when Detroit decamped to Traverse City, Mich., for training camp instead of holding court in their usual digs.

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"We just bonded really well," Seider said. "Having all the dads with no kids and no wives, it helps to just create a little chemistry there and we get to know each other on a little deeper level than if they would just be in the locker room and then head home after camp. That's obviously something that's helped and then we're just really comfortable with each other. We don't have any egos in here and it's just easy to talk to everyone whenever something comes up. Nobody's afraid to speak up and talk. So, I think that's pretty unique."

Seider is relatively unguarded himself, particularly when it comes to discussing his NHL trajectory so far. Drafted sixth overall in 2019, the defenseman put up seven goals and 50 points as a rookie in 2021-22 to secure a Calder Trophy win and further elevate expectations ahead of his sophomore season.

But Seider stumbled out of the gate in year two, producing fewer points and struggling to find a rhythm with partner Ben Chiarot. He recovered in the season's second half and ended up with comparable stats to that rookie campaign, but more importantly the now third-year pro learned valuable lessons to aid in his growth.

"I still think, looking back, I was a better hockey player in my second year than I was in the first," Seider said. "Even though maybe the numbers didn't show it, but you can just see it's a lot more than points to a single season. I can tune out a lot more now. I think the only person that puts pressure on me is myself. I don't really listen to the media. I don't really care to be honest. It's all about this locker room and myself and being comfortable in my role."

Red Wings fans have cheered on a great many legendary defensemen through the years, and they have a promising young one patrolling the blue line now in Moritz Seider. Darren Clark/NHLI via Getty Images

Raymond can relate to what Seider's gone through adjusting to the league. He was drafted fourth overall in 2020 and was in the Calder conversation with Seider thanks to his 57-point rookie season in 2021-22. Raymond's sophomore year was, like Seider's, less productive (45 points in 74 games) and forced Raymond to challenge himself in new ways before this season started.

"Developing physically was big," he said. "I think that's a part of what's changed for me. And mentally as well. I'm trying to mature on and off the ice and I feel a big difference in that area from this year compared to last year. My focus is on playing within my game every night and trusting that it will help the team win. I think it's just about doing the right things and playing at a high pace."

When it comes to relaxing off the ice, Raymond often turns to Larkin for company. The 21-year-old relishes time spent with his frequent linemate, partaking in "classic stuff" like going to dinners that fostered a strong alliance between them.

"There's a lot of things [I admire] about him," Raymond said. "The way he carries himself off the ice, he's a good friend of mine; he's helped me out a lot. And on the ice, obviously just watch the guy play. We have a good time together."

Raymond adds Larkin might even be underrated as a goal scorer given his abilities as a playmaking center. That elite level of execution is what DeBrincat believes makes Larkin so potent, and such a desirable linemate. It's also what's made losing Larkin from the lineup following a cross-check from Ottawa's Mathieu Joseph last week all the more difficult for Detroit.

"His game has got a lot of different layers to it," DeBrincat said. "I think he's got that speed, but he's also smart on the ice. He sees the ice so well and can find his teammates and I think that's maybe something that you don't necessarily see all the time when you're on the other team but playing with him every day, it's been great. He's very easy to play with. He creates so much space for his linemates by being so fast up the middle. He has a lot of skill with the puck as well. So, it's been fun."

IF THERE'S SOMETHING rather Zen about the Red Wings this season, it's probably coming from Derek Lalonde.

The first-time NHL head coach was hired by Yzerman before the 2022-23 season to reinvigorate the team after Blashill's seven-year stint finished with six consecutive missed playoff appearances. Lalonde didn't manage to get Detroit back in the postseason immediately, but he has planted the seeds to help the Red Wings get there now.

"He's been great," DeBrincat said. "He's really calm behind the bench and keeps that calm, that quiet, confident attitude, throughout the team and throughout the game. We've had a couple of third period comebacks [this season] and I think that starts with him not panicking and being that calm presence for us. He definitely preaches work ethic and just doing the little things and knowing that will allow us to win games."

Derek Lalonde has brought a cool demeanor to the Red Wings' bench. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The messaging appears to have sunk in. Detroit's lapses haven't snowballed under Lalonde's watch this time. Past the quarter mark of the regular season, that's landed Detroit firmly in playoff position.

It's a good start, to be sure. But Lalonde's also clearly excited about what more Detroit can give, especially after Kane gets up to speed. The mix of young talent with NHL experience in the Red Wings' ranks delights him, and Lalonde wants to make the most of its potential.

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"I like new faces; there's an energy to it," he said. "[Other teams] within our division have drafted longer and higher than us and done a really good job with that, and we've had to build a little bit from the outside. I think Steve [Yzerman's] done a really good job with that. He's got the right pieces. Some guys are maybe within their career, [they're] hungry, and trying to help us build something. I'm excited; I like getting faces and new personalities in the room."

If the combination is right then the Red Wings can keep rising -- and, to Lalonde's eye, perhaps prove a few critics wrong in the process.

"We're ecstatic [with where we're at]," he said. "I don't think many people saw us being in this position at the beginning of the year, which is understandable. But it's just the quarter mark, and we got there through doing some things the right way. And we'll have to continue to do that."

    

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