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Sport: Tampa Bay prepared Red Wings’ Derek Lalonde to become NHL head coach

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DETROIT – Derek Lalonde gained a wealth of knowledge and experience during his four-year apprenticeship as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay.

It’s where he watched head coach Jon Cooper manage superstar players, evolve in offseasons, adjust to personnel changes, deal with management and see the Lightning overcome an epic playoff collapse to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

Tampa Bay was the proving ground that prepared Lalonde for his first NHL head coaching job with the Detroit Red Wings.

Lalonde returns to Tampa Bay on Tuesday to face the Lightning for the first time (7:30 p.m., Bally Sports Detroit). It’s also the Red Wings’ first game with former head coach Jeff Blashill behind the Lightning bench as an assistant.

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“The transformation we had to make from good to great and how we had to manage our game and hold some of our players accountable in different areas of our game, a little more team over self, more sacrifice,” Lalonde said. “I think that helped me immensely as a coach.

“Winning and winning it all are a lot different. We went through it the hard way where we (tied) an NHL record for wins in a season (62 in 2018-19) and we weren’t playing the right way (swept by Columbus in first round). It’s helped me get a better feel of what winning looks like. Obviously, we’re in a different spot here, but a lot of it is the same. You can see us trying to establish some winning habits within our game.”

Lalonde enjoyed success as a head coach at other levels – USHL Green Bay, ECHL Toledo and AHL Iowa. That doesn’t always translate to the NHL, but the early returns have been positive. The Red Wings (12-7-5, 29 points) have four more points after 23 games than they did a year ago. They have improved in every area (offense, defense, special teams).

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“Obviously, the buck stops with me,” Lalonde said. “I have to hold guys a lot more accountable than I did in Tampa. That’s what Jon did. I played a role very similar to our assistants here, where I might be an outlet for them every day with the video, the skill development after (practice), a different relationship.

“I probably didn’t appreciate how much I was taking from Coop until I was here on a day-to-day basis. I’ll be forever appreciative of Jon and the time I spent with him.”

Dylan Larkin said Lalonde’s enthusiasm and positive energy was evident from their first phone conversation in the offseason. He has a calm demeanor behind the bench.

“He kind of just analyzes and doesn’t say much, makes adjustments at the intermission and just has calmness,” Larkin said. “It never seems like we’re in panic mode.”

Lalonde has not taken a tyrannical approach to turning around a team that has missed the playoffs six years in a row.

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“There’s been a couple of times when he’s kind of had to let us know we’re not doing things the right way,” Alex Nedeljkovic said. “But for the most part he’s been pretty positive. I think that’s good, because especially in games where maybe we didn’t have our best, it’s easy to look at the negatives and kind of dwell on those.

“And when I say he’s positive, he’s not sugar-coating things. If you have a good game, he’ll let you know. If you maybe did something wrong, he’s going to let you know.”

The Lightning pedigree gives Lalonde more credibility than most first-year head coaches.

“I think it is easy to get behind because it’s had success,” Larkin said.

“The video sessions are pretty short but they’re meaningful. How we practice is great as well. He’s prepared. The whole staff has done a great job. Newsy (Lalonde) said it many times after games that we’re still in the process of learning and learning the systems. Once we get them down it’s going to all click.”

Steve Yzerman, as the general manager in Tampa Bay, signed off on Cooper adding Lalonde to his staff in 2018. Assistant coaches don’t have much interaction with the GM, but as head coach, Lalonde now deals regularly with Yzerman.

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“I love working for Steve,” Lalonde said. “He’s extremely demanding, but that comes from passion. There’s no one here that wants to get this going more than him and I love that. Coop told me in taking this, Steve’s going to be demanding but that is the most important relationship. It’s been great so far.”

Among many challenges Lalonde and every head coach faces is making sure his message to players doesn’t get stale over time.

“That’s exactly a question I got when I interviewed with Steve,” Lalonde said. “He said, ‘Do you think there’s a shelf life on coaches?’ I do not when done correctly. It’s up to an individual coach; it’s up to his staff to keep things fresh. Not only keep things fresh through 82 games but evolve and keep things fresh in the offseason.”

More: Diehard Bills fans, soccer afficionado Lalonde ready to lead Red Wings

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