The Grind Line: Red Wings Leadership Under the Microscope

What’s The Grind Line? Apart from the once-famous line of Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and either Joe Kocur or Darren McCarty, The Grind Line is also The Hockey Writers’ weekly column about the Detroit Red Wings. Jacob Messing, and Rachel Anderson are the muckers who makeup THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.

With the Detroit Red Wings’ regular-season woes snowballing, the leadership has, once more, come under scrutiny. Falling to the NHL basement and with only one win on the season, the murmurs have begun to spiral. Head coach Jeff Blashill has been in the cross-hairs for his coaching style and decision making. He hasn’t been anyone’s favorite person since he chose to send Filip Zadina to the AHL,  which we previously analyzed.

Another reason for the team’s lackluster on-ice performance could be that they need a captain. The team’s chemistry and confidence have been shaken, there is no doubt. Could it be that Henrik Zetterberg prematurely stepping away from the game affected the roster a lot more than expected?

Jeff Blashill
Jeff Blashill (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Could the Red Wings be suffering because of poor top-level leadership or is Blashill’s big picture simply misunderstood? Is a Zetterberg-less locker room tearing at the very fiber of the team? The Grind Line this week discusses these possibilities.

Jeff Blashill’s Big Picture: Miss or Misunderstood?

Rachel Anderson: Misunderstood

I’ll be the first to admit, Blashill worries me at times. Every Red Wings coach has had me scratching my head at some point in time, sans Scotty Bowman. In Blashill’s defense, he inherited a team that was stuck with aging and ailing players and a development system that was expended. In that regard, he got the short end of the stick.

Grand Rapids surrendered who they could to Detroit, however, they were undergoing changes of their own at the time. On Blashill’s appointment, Todd Nelson was taking over in Grand Rapids and overhauling his team. With both teams transitioning, the Red Wings’ coach didn’t have the tools he needed.

Fast-forward and the Red Wings are being overhauled. Development isn’t taboo anymore. The team has been in decline the last few seasons, even under former head coach Mike Babcock, and unfortunately, the head coach is the whipping post by default. However,  Blashill speaks with confidence and intelligence and he understands the importance of developing and leading a team.

In return, the Red Wings believe in his message. As Dylan Larkin put it, “No matter what happens, line up and play our game and get on the forecheck,” Larkin said. “It’s been a common theme in a lot of Blash’s meetings. It’s been a frustrating start, so it was good to keep hearing it the past week or so,” (from ‘Detroit Red Wings finally won. Here’s what made the difference.’ Detroit Free Press – 10/21/18).

Jeff Blashill
(Mark Newman/Flickr)

The win against the Florida Panthers was hard fought, perhaps harder than it should have been, but it was a win. It’s a start. Players like Dennis Cholowski and Michael Rasmussen are getting the chance to learn in real time and develop; that’s the end game, develop the new as the old make way. Blashill has had incredible success at the AHL level, and could yet prove to be a valuable asset in Detroit.

Jacob Messing: Miss

I’ll be the first to admit I was excited for Blashill to take the reins in 2015-16 after the loss of Mike Babcock. His resume was strong and his familiarity with upcoming prospects made for a perfect match, especially alongside solid veterans including Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

An already declining team with a questionable-at-best roster (specifically the defense) awaited him. But he appeared in over his head rather quickly and relied far too heavily on aging players while keeping the young players of the future on a short leash. That’s been a pattern for him.

Blashill just didn’t do enough to try and take control or make the team his own; he seemed too entwined with mimicking Babcock at times. The problem is he doesn’t have the same mentality or insight as Babcock, one of the game’s greatest coaches. All the while, Ken Holland has made a mess of the salary cap and done very little to help Blashill’s roster decisions given the abundance of immovable, unproductive and/or replaceable players.

In the end, it’s just too late for Blashill and I believe he’s already lost the locker room. A new coach with a fresh perspective and no pre-drawn conclusions or favorites is best. I expect assistant Dan Bylsma to end the season as an interim before a new hire during the summer.

Life Without Zetterberg: Missing Backbone or Shouldn’t Matter?

Rachel Anderson: Missing Backbone

Many will agree when I say that Zetterberg’s early retirement affected the mentality of the team. Strong leadership has always been a crown of splendor for the Red Wings who boast some of the best captains the game has ever seen. Zetterberg was silently confident in the locker room, a trait the team desperately needs.

He was the captain that everyone knew would instill confidence and produce whenever he hit the ice. Even while injured, he was at the top of the leaderboard. “He’s one of the greatest Red Wings players in our history,” Holland said. “He and Pavel Datsyuk carried the torch for this franchise for another decade (after Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom),” (from ‘Not Worth Risk: Back injury forces Wings’ Zetterberg to retire’, The Detroit News – 9/14/18).

Darren Helm
(Icon SMI)

His unmatched leadership leaves a hole in a team’s morale and structure. The effects of his departure were assumed, but I don’t think to the extent that the team has struggled this season. Zetterberg set the standard for the team and now, there’s no definite leader, only a collection of quasi-leaders through four alternates.

It’s not unheard of to start a season without a captain or not name one at all, but for the Red Wings, the captaincy has always been highly regarded, respected, and never vacant. Now, the younger players coming up are answering to four instead of one and don’t have a defined sense of structure. That inevitably carries onto the ice. Though the team is toughing out a transitional phase, I think the loss of their leader has impacted them more than anyone was prepared for.

Jacob Messing: Missing Backbone

Steve Yzerman. Nicklas Lidstrom. Henrik Zetterberg. Needless to say, the Red Wings have been extremely fortunate in having natural born leaders develop in Detroit and be able to learn from predecessors and additionally, pass on their knowledge to the next wave.

For the first time in franchise history, the Red Wings are captainless. It’s quite alright, as there’s no current standout player in line to follow three bona fide Hall of Famers. Zetterberg has been the consummate professional during his career. It’s unfortunate that he’ll go down as the man with the ‘C’ that was unable to carry on the playoff streak so many fans clung to as the organization began its decline.

Henrik Zetterberg
Henrik Zetterberg (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Now, just eight games without one of the longest-tenured and most respected captains in the NHL, there’s a clear hole in leadership. Niklas Kronwall, Justin Abdelkader, and the transitioning duo Frans Nielsen and Dylan Larkin are clearly having problems rallying the team.

A voice can only go so far and when it mattered most, they’re failing to lead by example. An aging, immobile Kronwall has struggled to keep pace as his career winds down. Abdelkader is a shadow of a shadow of his former self. Nielsen, who wore a letter for four years with the New York Islanders has had a painful, confidence-draining start to the season. Larkin has been encouraging through his play, but can only do so much, and at 22 years old is still learning the NHL himself.

The reality is this team missed Datsyuk far more than anticipated in 2016-17 and is now facing the same reality two years later with the loss of Zetterberg.