The Grind Line: Detroit Red Wings’ Assistant Coach Candidates

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. This week Tony Wolak, Devin Little, Patrick Brown, and Kyle Knopp are the muckers who make up THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.

The Detroit Red Wings may have decided to bring back Jeff Blashill recently, however, not everyone made it out of the 2020-21 season unscathed. Assistant coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Steve Yzerman parted ways — Bylsma is moving on to other opportunities, leaving an intriguing opening on the coaching staff.

The Red Wings need a coach who can provide a boost on the power play, an area seriously lacking under Bylsma, but also may need someone ready to step into a head coaching role, should Blashill be let go at any point midseason.

So, who should it be? Our experts sound off.

Tony Wolak: Eric Wellwood

There are plenty of great candidates to replace Bylsma, but it sounds like the Red Wings are looking for a fresh perspective to join the coaching staff. Blashill said as much during his recent press conference:

“I would use probably the word ‘tactician,’ especially a guy with an offensive kind of mindset, somebody that brings some different—potentially unique—ideas,” Blashill noted.

With that in mind, I’m here to make a case for Eric Wellwood. The former Flint Firebirds coach recently stepped down from his role, citing personal and family reasons. A gig with the Red Wings makes a lot of sense, provided he’s interested in pursuing new opportunities.

Eric Wellwood Flint Firebirds
Eric Wellwood of the Flint Firebirds (Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Wellwood quickly turned around the Firebirds program after being hired as the head coach in 2018. Let me put it into perspective for you:

  • 2018-19: 16-37-6-0 record; 3.12 goals-for per game
  • 2019-20: 40-21-1-1 record; 4.35 goals-for per game

Former Firebirds defenseman Owen Lalonde sold me with this quote published by the Windsor Star:

“[Wellwood]’s really easy to relate to and guys love him. He’s easy to joke around with and easy to talk to and when it comes to X’s and O’s, he knows his stuff.” (from ‘Former Spitfire Wellwood opts not to return as head coach of Firebirds,’ Windsor Spitfires, 05/24/2021)

I think he’d fit in well as the tactician on Blashill’s staff.

Devin Little: Ryan Warsofsky

My actual preference for the open assistant spot is former Red Wing Igor Larionov, but after talking with his son, Igor Larionov II, on the latest episode of THW Grind Line, I’m not going to get my hopes up about that becoming a reality. Instead, I’m going to nominate a young, up-and-coming coach to join the coaching staff of this young, up-and-coming team. 

Warsofsky is still a young man at just 33 years of age (he is the youngest head coach currently in the AHL), and yet he has already built up a solid coaching resume that should have him on many NHL teams’ radars. He led the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL to the Kelly Cup Finals in his first year at the helm, and overall he had a record of 88-44-10-2 before joining the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL as an assistant coach ahead of the 2018-19 season. The following season, he was promoted to head coach of the Checkers, and they achieved a record of 34-22-5 before the season was cut short by the pandemic. 

This season, Warsofsky was the head coach of the Chicago Wolves after the Carolina Hurricanes ended their affiliation with the Checkers. Under his tutelage, the Wolves won the Central Division with a record of 21-9-3. 

The only hiccup to all of this is that Warsofsky has been the penalty kill guy when he has been an assistant, and the Red Wings are looking for somebody to run the power play. That being said, I really like the potential that this coach has, and he would certainly bring a fresh face and fresh ideas to the Red Wings’ organization. If I’m general manager Steve Yzerman, Warsofsky is one of the first people I’m calling to gauge his interest.

Pat Brown: Willie Desjardins

I, like Devin, have pipe dreams of The Professor returning to the Red Wings as a coach someday, but it just doesn’t seem to be in the cards at the moment. Even so, there are definitely candidates out there who can effectively improve the power play while preparing for an elevated role with the team, should the need arise.

Enter Desjardins.

Desjardins has an excellent resume to step into this position. He was an average NHL head coach, compiling a record of 136-144-35 in four seasons as a head coach with both the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings. Still, his experience includes very successful stops in the AHL (2012-13 AHL Coach of the Year with the Texas Stars), and WHL (2005-06 CHL Coach of the Year with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers), among other leagues.

Desjardins has been out of the NHL since acting as the Kings’ interim coach in 2018-19 and has been serving as the Tigers’ general manager and head coach since the 2019-20 season. The team has had an exceptional power play under his leadership and actually led the league after a 23-game season in 2020-21 (37 percent!). This after ranking third in 2019-20 at 24.1 percent. Fans could only dream of those kinds of numbers showing up in Hockeytown.

Willie Desjardins coaching the Vancouver Canucks in 2017. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This move would be a home run in my book. True special teams sense, sustained success at the professional level, and NHL head coaching experience checks off all the boxes, should Yzerman feel inclined.

Kyle Knopp: Benoit Groulx

Part of the problem, it seems with the 2020-21 Red Wings coaching staff, was they had too many head coach personalities. Yes, Blashill was the official head coach, but with a guy like Bylsma — who won a Stanley Cup and Jack Adams Award — there is too much room for confusion among players. 

Instead of a second head coach, this team needs a coach specializing in developing and preparing players for the next step. With that in mind, two AHL names jump out at me as potential candidates — Ben Simon and Groulx. Since Blashill said that the process for hiring a new assistant coach was “not going to be anything quick,” it leads me to believe the Wings will elect to leave Simon in Grand Rapids for the time being (from ‘Jeff Blashill’s extension with Red Wings, assistant coach search, offseason needs: Steve Yzerman’s year-end comments,’ The Athletic, May 19, 2021). 

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After winning back-to-back QMJHL championships with the Hull/Gatineau Olympiques (the city of Hull was amalgamated with Gatineau in 2002), Groulx was hired as the head coach of the Rochester Americans. In his first season with the Americans, he preached better team discipline — finishing the season with five more wins and eight more points while the team scored 13 fewer goals. Rochester also allowed 32 fewer goals and committed 278 fewer penalty minutes than the prior season. Groulx followed that up with 15 more wins and 69 more goals scored by the team in his sophomore campaign, leading the Americans back to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. 

In Groulx’s first three seasons as head coach with the Syracuse Crunch, a job he took while Yzerman was with the Crunch’s NHL affiliate Tampa Bay Lightning, he has improved their team winning percentage — while decreasing the number of goals against and increasing the number of goals for — each season. As someone who likes to preach playing a full 200-foot game, Blashill can find a lot to like in Groulx.

Who do you think should be named the next assistant coach? Sound off in the comments below!

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