It was just 1 year ago that up-and-coming coaching prodigy Jeff Blashill announced his resignation from the head coaching job at Western Michigan University in order to accept an assistant role on the Detroit Red Wings bench next to Mike Babcock. At the time the announcement came as a bit of a surprise, there were more experienced and well-known candidates available, but as Chuck Pleiness of the Macomb Daily notes, Babcock and the Wings were looking for fresh voices.
“I’ve been in Detroit six years and after a while you start to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher — womp, womp, womp!” Babcock said last season. “I’m looking for new ideas, new thoughts. We’re trying to evolve our game. The way to do that is change. (Players) have heard the same voice for a long time.”
Blashill was supposed to provide just that voice. He was a rapidly rising and successful coach.
After 10 years as an assistant split between Ferris State University and Miami University, Blashill landed his first head coaching gig with the USHL’s Indian Ice in 2008, leading them to a Clark Cup Championship in his first year at the helm. The achievement got him noticed, and in April of 2010 he assumed the same head coaching role at Western Michigan University, where he would again make an immediate difference.
In his first year behind the Broncos’ bench Blashill was named Coach of the Year by U.S. College Hockey Online, Inside College Hockey, and College Hockey News. As Adam Bodnar of WMU News noted, the honors were quite well deserved.
“Blashill led a rejuvenated Bronco hockey team to a 19-13-10 record, a fourth-place finish in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, an appearance in the CCHA Tournament championship game and the program’s fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Broncos boasted the nation’s longest unbeaten streak at 14 games and racked up six wins against nationally ranked opponents.
Inheriting a program that had only eight wins and finished last in the CCHA one year ago, Blashill led WMU to a 10-9-9 conference record and its first top-four CCHA finish since the 1995-96 season. He then guided the Broncos to a playoff series win over Ferris State and a trip to the CCHA semifinals for the first time since 1993.
The Broncos went on to defeat regular-season champion Michigan, 5-2, in the semifinals for the program’s first trip to the CCHA Tournament championship game since 1986. WMU fell to Miami in the championship game, but earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.”
With a resume like that it’s easy to see why Blashill was attractive to a Red Wings team that was looking for new voices. They expected he would have an immediate impact on their team as well.
“He’s a young man with a bright future in coaching, a polished presenter,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said last year when asked about his new assistant coach. “He’ll have an immediate impact on the team.”
Blashill said at the time he was surprised when Babcock left him a message out of the blue since he had no previous relationship with anybody on the Red Wings.
“As much as I loved my position at Western (Michigan), this was too good an opportunity not to take,” Blashill said. “It was my goal for a number of years to go to the NHL. Ultimately, I would like to be an NHL head coach.”
While he got the opportunity of coaching in the NHL, his dreams of being the head bench boss took a step backwards on Monday. Or did they?
“Detroit Red Wings Executive Vice President and General Manager Ken Holland today announced that Red Wings assistant coach Jeff Blashill has left his current position with the team in order to take over duties as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit ’s American Hockey League affiliate.”
Blashill takes the job just 1 week after Kurt Fraser (the winningest coach in Griffins history) announced he would be moving on to a position as an assistant for the Dallas Stars.
A demotion? Maybe.
Things clearly didn’t work out in Detroit this season, for anyone. The Red Wings exited the playoffs the earliest they had in 6 years, losing a 5 game 1st round series to the Nashville Predators. While injuries and a lack of depth to bandage them with certainly played a role in the team’s untimely demise, there was another point of contention all season long, and it was something Blashill was directly in charge of. The powerplay.
Detroit’s powerplay was ranked 22nd in the league this season, succeeding just 16.1% of the time. It was the lowest rate of effectiveness for a Red Wings’ powerplay in over a decade, and completely unacceptable given the team’s abundance of talent.
Yet it would seem like a stretch to suggest that a wonky powerplay in Blashill’s first year on the job would alone result in him being sent to Grand Rapids, and both the team and Blashill’s own comments to the public suggest otherwise as well.
“We’re very excited to name Jeff the next head coach of the Griffins,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. “He’s a talented coach that has a proven track record of working well with young players. He did a tremendous job for us in Detroit last season and we look forward to having him groom and mentor our prospects in Grand Rapids.”
“I’m thrilled for the opportunity to be the head coach of the Griffins,” said Blashill. “I had a tremendous experience in Detroit last season and will lean on that as I make the transition behind the bench in Grand Rapids. I worked with most of our young players at training camp and in the preseason last year. We have some great talent in the organization. I’m looking forward to getting started.”
While it’s entirely possible that their statements are just political correct malarkey, the decision seems to have been mutual, and in all likelihood will be mutually beneficial in the long run.
Blashill has made his impact on young teams, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that his tactics could be unappealing or ineffective for the older members of the Red Wings lineup. The same philosophies don’t work everywhere, and Detroit could have been one of the places it didn’t. A young group in Grand Rapids, however, could provide the just the necessary ears for such philosophies to take root.
There’s also a possibility that Blashill’s voice was just too “fresh” for Babcock’s liking. If the views brought to the table were too conflicting, or at the very least not entirely complimentary, it would result in tension and ineffective strategy. To that point too, perhaps the coaches simply didn’t get along well. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that not everyone would take kindly to Mike Babcock’s shall we say “terse” ways. Just ask Pierre McGuire.
To that effect, maybe Blashill found it difficult to step out of the head coaching role again. After a couple of seasons controlling things the way he wanted it, it may have been difficult to step back under someone else’s control. Whatever the reason may be, Blashill’s comments to MLive’s Peter J. Wallner seem to make it clear that he’s looking forward to his new job.
“It’s a terrific opportunity,” said Blashill, a Ferris State grad who comes to the Griffins after one season as Mike Babcock’s assistant with the Red Wings. “An opportunity to be a coach in the American League is something I was certainly striving for, and to stay with one of the best organizations, if not the best organization in the Detroit Red Wings, just made it a terrific fit.”
We’ll probably never know the whole truth, but it’s clear the Red Wings organization still values Blashill as a member. If they didn’t believe in and support him he wouldn’t be taking control of the team’s future in Grand Rapids. For a team that prides itself on draft and development excellence, perhaps this could even be considered a promotion.
While there are other theories out there, and a general consensus that this is some kind of demotion, I’d prefer to suggest it’s a lateral move. Not a lower or higher rank, just a different one. There is no less importance to either job, they’re just different settings, different places along the timeline of Red Wings player’s careers.
Now the focus will turn to filling the new-found assistant coaching vacancy in Detroit. Possible candidates could include Jim Paek (a Griffins assistant for 7 years and previously a favorite to land the head coaching job there) and Mike Haviland (a recently fired and well liked Chicago Blackhawks assistant), but that’s just speculation.
What we know for sure is that the team must now wrangle a coach as well as some free agents, and all we can do is wait and see who they’re able to lure.