In the next few days, Detroit Red Wings General Manager Steve Yzerman will be deciding whether Head Coach Jeff Blashill is extended, or free to walk. The topic is a lightning rod amongst Red Wings fans as either decision is met with fierce opposition. I personally made my thoughts known on a post that went out on the Red Wings On Tap Twitter account recently.
— Detroit Red Wings on Tap (@redwingsontap) May 9, 2021
As expected, there was support, curiosity, and whether or not my parents loved me enough as a child was questioned. I fully believe that Blashill will be returning as coach. As such, I want to outline why if he does return, it is not the end of the world in Hockeytown.
Blashill’s Pre-NHL Coaching History
Blashill has won everywhere he has been while coaching. He won a Clark Cup with the Indiana Ice in the USHL. Western Michigan University then recruited him where he took the Broncos to the NCAA Midwest Regional Semifinals. He then went on to coach the Grand Rapids Griffins where he led the team to a 2012-2013 Calder Cup championship. He is also the only coach in Griffin’s history to post three 40 win seasons, and three 90 point seasons. As a result, when Mike Babcock made it known that he wanted to leave the Red Wings, Blashill was given the keys to the castle. Blashill took over an eroding talent base of a team that was a perennial contender. The farm system was barren and bad contracts on the books. It was going to be very difficult for him to compete coming into the NHL.
Blashill’s Early NHL Resume
Many fans point to Blashill’s 172-221-62 record as the Red Wings coach as the silver bullet in the case against him. If that is not the argument used, typically it is that the Red Wings have just concluded their fifth straight season without a playoff berth. The fact is that this team is just not the team of the late 90’s and early 2000’s that were hoisting Stanley Cups. In year one of Blashill’s tenure, Johan Franzen played just two games. Before the second season, Pavel Datsyuk left Detroit to go back home to Russia. Henrik Zetterberg continued the exodus of talent from the club with his retirement. The talent coming in was just not the same level as that leaving. It was then that the rebuild was officially acknowledged, and players started to be moved. This was four years into Blashill’s tenure.
Observing Blashill’s Current Coaching Weaknesses and Strengths
Critics of Jeff Blashill point to his propensity to shuffle lines as a point of contention. In fact, the “Blash blender” is routinely mentioned on social media when discussing the lineup. The criticism may be justified, as players do develop a chemistry on the ice that boosts the talent of the individuals. However, the lack of talent leads to an interesting conundrum. Should he concentrate the talent on one line, forming one competent NHL unit? Or spread out the talent to form potential chances throughout the lineup? My beliefs are that it is a fools task to expect a winning formula to come from either of these approaches. A true contender can shuffle lines to shake things up, while the talent does not drop off significantly. Much of this issue goes away if talent is added to the roster.
Detroit had major struggles on both the power-play and penalty-kill during the 2021 campaign. This included a drought that extended 40 power-plays without finding the back of the net. Though at the time maddening, the outcome led to a great fundraising effort by Red Wings’ fans for the Jamie Daniels Foundation. The 11.4% conversion rate of the power-play finished above only the Anaheim Ducks on the season. At times, the strategy was to dish it back to a forward who built speed through the defensive zone in an effort to break-in. Towards the end of the year, dump and chase was the preferred method of zone entry. The talent gap has been acknowledged, but this has to be a primary focus if Blashill returns.
This unit relied on a late-season hot streak that resulted in an ascension to 21st in the league killing off 78.7% of the opposition’s power-plays. The effectiveness at the tail-end of the year very well may be due to adjustments that were made. Nevertheless, the team finished above the top third, which ultimately is an overachievement for this group. Why do they find themselves under weaknesses? Because most of the year, they found themselves much further down the league ranking. It was not until they were all but eliminated from the playoffs that there was an improvement. If Blashill is retained, hopefully, the adjustments made toward the end of the season carry over to next season.
The benefit of Blashill being promoted from within is that he coached some of the players in Grand Rapids. Not only did he coach them, but he experienced success with them. Those players, like Luke Glendening, are now a major part of the nucleus of the roster. They are looked up to in the locker room and understand the system. In most games, the team gives great effort playing a system that does not allow for many personal accolades. Despite that, many of the newcomers like playing here, and not many players leave by their own design. Taking that all into consideration, it seems that he has not lost the room or any of the players despite trying times.
Even the most passionate, die-hard Detroit fan has to acknowledge that the talent on this team is worst in the league, or at worst, bottom three. If you have gone through that exercise and agree, then an acknowledgement should be made that it is imperative to put these players in the best situation to win. Blashill’s system does this to a tee. This system is one of stifling defense and insanely boring hockey. Consider with this talent that the Red Wings:
- Had the eighth least amount of high danger chances against (HDC).
- This resulted in the 10th least high danger goals against (HDGA).
- Manufactured a top ten defense in five versus five situations (5v5)
The fact of the matter is that this team improved fairly significantly over last year without adding a ton of talent that carried them there. They also showed a marked improvement while Thomas Greiss posted the worst goals saved above average (GSAA) in the league. The system, albeit boring, is extremely effective. Once more talent is injected, goals will increase. This season the Red Wings were 15th in the league in expected goals for (xGF), yet only 31st in actual goals for (aGF). Where would this team have finished if they scored at the 15th best rate in the league? The goal in this league is to win, and at this time going toe-to-toe in offensive shootouts is just not the way it is done. Not with the current roster construction.
If Yzerman were to let Blashill go, I would be surprised. I am just unsure who would agree to take over a team that is years away. If a coach did agree to commandeer a rebuild, how stale would their voice be when it is time to win? I am not saying that Blashill is, or is not the coach that will lead the Red Wings to hoisting a cup in the future. As written above, he is not without weaknesses. The lack of offense created can lead to a shelling on nights the defense doesn’t click. But overall, I believe he is the right coach for the current situation.
Not only do I believe that Blashill will be back on a one-year, or two-year deal, I believe that he deserves to be back. His coaching style allows the Red Wings to compete with most teams most nights. The players like playing for him. This is important as we see talent being shipped out of cities due to being disgruntled. That is not happening here. Sure, we do see Dylan Larkin looking up in agony on the bench as frustration sets in. That is going to happen. This is a rebuilding team. No coach will take this talent and be making playoff runs. With the lack of talent, that would not be a good way to inject more anyways. This is a team that needs to lose now in order to stock up and reload for the future. Losing competitively is a perfectly good outcome in the current state.
Those with the burning lanterns and pitchforks may just have to wait a couple more years.