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Red Wings' Alex DeBrincat seeks consistency after up-and-down first season in Detroit

Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News on

Published in Hockey

DETROIT — The way Alex DeBrincat sees it, his first season with the Red Wings mirrored the team's regular season.

The best times were scintillating, exactly what the Wings were hoping for when they acquired DeBrincat in July from the Ottawa Senators. The not-so-good times were confounding and disappointing, as DeBrincat slumped late in the season, just when the Wings could have used some goals.

In the end, a 27-goal season from DeBrincat was a nice opening season. The 27 goals matched his season before in Ottawa, and he collected one more point for 67 total, compared to 66 in Ottawa in 2022-23, thanks to 40 assists compared to the 39 in Ottawa the season before.

The way DeBrincat sounded during his season-ending media conference last month, his best times as a Wing may yet be coming.

"A lot of ups and downs," DeBrincat said, when analyzing his season. "I would have loved to be more consistent. When you're going through those slumps there's still other things you can do to be effective and be beneficial to the team. Those (checking, defense, playmaking) are the things I try to do. It's not always perfect. Each year in this league I've gotten better, and I hope to get better next year and be more consistent."

"Consistency is what makes great players and I want to be a great player. That's something I need to work on," he said.

When the Wings acquired DeBrincat for forward Dominik Kubalik (11 goals in Ottawa), prospect defenseman Donovan Sebrango and draft picks, they felt the organization finally had the pure goal-scoring wing they had long coveted.

And placing DeBrincat on a line with Dylan Larkin, the torrid start was what everyone around the Wings envisioned. DeBrincat had nine goals and 13 points in the first seven games, igniting the Wings to a 6-1-0 start, as the line clicked and the Wings and DeBrincat were successfully speeding out of the gate.

"He doesn't get enough credit throughout the league of how good he is, and how much he means to the team," DeBrincat said of having the opportunity to play with Larkin during the season. "Playing with him every day and seeing him practice, he works so hard and he definitely pushes everyone to be better."

"He's our best player," he said.

But then, suddenly, the deluge out of the spigot simply stopped. The goals became more sporadic, reaching a disappointing conclusion in the end as DeBrincat had four goals and 10 assists (14 points) in the final 23 games. He did score three of those goals in the final three games, a two-goal game April 13 in Toronto and a goal two nights later against Montreal.

Though DeBrincat's goal-scoring went quiet, coach Derek Lalonde felt other parts of DeBrincat's game came alive.

One in particular is defensively. Playing on an Ottawa team with similar overall talent, DeBrincat had a minus-31 plus-minus rating and was scorched on social media for his defensive woes. But with the Wings, DeBrincat was plus-1 and displayed a desire to play sound defense, especially when going through his goal-scoring drought.

"Obviously his goal total, he wanted more of it," Lalonde said. "But at the same time, he has a lot of goals and even through some of those stretches he wasn't scoring, he had chances. I wasn't concerned.

"What I'm excited about with Alex is, he went from a minus-31 player last year and our win total and point total wasn't a whole lot different to what he experienced last year, and he's a plus-player this year. He added some more plays defensively, he won more battles and plays on the wall. The DNA of some of our forwards, some are more offensive first and Alex puts a lot of pride in putting pucks in the back of the net. But you can see him (understanding) what it takes to win and the team game, so I've been very happy with Alex."

Having gone through the shock of being traded two summers ago from Chicago to Ottawa prepared DeBrincat for the transition to the Wings and his third team in three years. But the fact DeBrincat was coming home (he's a Farmington Hills native) and being around family and friends, and playing for the Wings, were all factors that made this particular move to a new team much easier.

"The adjustment was pretty good," DeBrincat said. "It's always different coming to a different team and being in a new environment. I had gone through it the year before and it's tough to do it two years in a row, but overall it was a lot of fun here. The group of guys is great, and I had a real fun time with them and battling with them every day."

 

"I had a blast. This is probably the best team I've been part of and the most fun year in terms of where we were the last month of the season. We kind of went to war there and those games were the most fun to be part of," he said.

The Wings were jockeying for a playoff berth the last week of the season. They were in danger of being eliminated the two games before the season finale, but rallied to win each game, then won the final game of the season with yet another comeback, but were eliminated from playoff contention to Washington on a tiebreaker (regulation time victories).

The entire experience, DeBrincat said, should benefit the Wings.

"We were right there as a team," DeBrincat said. "Tough way to (be eliminated), but it'll only motivate us for next year. We know we can be in the mix and be a good team. We just have to do it more often. There were too many lulls in the season when we weren't playing (the right way), and it went on for too long. When we play the right way, we're a real good team and we can beat anyone in the league."

And, what's the right way in DeBrincat's estimation?

"Maybe (a little) selfish, or a little too skilled, but it's those stretches, if we knock those out, we're in a better spot and we have the pieces to be a good team and be in the playoffs next year, for sure," DeBrincat said. "It's just consistency. There were a couple stretches there we weren't playing our game."

"It's only going to get better. We're all going to be hungry next year and come back stronger and better and it's good we went through this situation and we can learn from it," he said.

DeBrincat is one Red Wing, for sure, hoping Patrick Kane is there with them next season.

The two have been good friends and linemates going back to their years together in Chicago. Seeing DeBrincat in the Wings' lineup was one reason Kane chose to sign as an unrestricted free agent in November after rehabilitating from hip surgery.

Kane is a free agent again this summer. DeBrincat, who did his share of understated recruiting last autumn, is hopeful Kane returns to the Wings.

"He came in here in the first place and he chose us for a reason," said DeBrincat, noting the Wings' potential. "I don't know what he's going to do, but we're hoping he stays here. He's a big part of this team and a big part of where we want to go, and he's going to be part of that. We'll see. It's his choice but we'd love to have him come back."

DeBrincat and Kane have uncommon chemistry on the ice, seemingly knowing constantly where each other is on the ice. There was skepticism by many analysts that Kane wouldn't be able to return to his elite level of play after the hip surgery.

But Kane did, nearly averaging a point per game (47 points in 50 games). DeBrincat wasn't surprised by Kane's stellar comeback.

"Not at all," DeBrincat said. "A lot of people maybe doubted what he could do when he came back, but I've seen how hard he works and I've seen what he does on the ice. If anyone is going to do that (return), I knew it was going to be him, and to come back and effective right away I wasn't really surprised."

"Like I said, he's a huge part of our team and we'd love him to be back," he said.

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