The Detroit Red Wings are fun this season. This is a team led by its youth and players in their prime playing in key positions. While their 12-9-3 record reflects a team that goes through peaks and valleys as they battle growing pains and inconsistency, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who anticipated the Red Wings being in the thick of the playoff race as the calendar flipped to December. Yet here we are, and a lot of love gets thrown at the feet of Detroit’s rookies because of it.
Now it’s time to show some love to the man in charge of guiding and teaching those rookies: Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill.
The Jack Adams Award is awarded yearly to “the NHL coach adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” Often times, the season’s winner comes from a team that experienced a massive turnaround from the prior season. Barry Trotz won the award in 2019 after leading the New York Islanders to a 13 win improvement on the prior season. John Tortorella won in 2017 for orchestrating a 16 win improvement for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Over the last two seasons, the Red Wings have won a grand total of 36 games. This season, they’re on pace for roughly 41 wins. It is bold to suggest that Blashill deserves any sort of Jack Adams consideration, and realistically that’s taking it a step too far at this point. But make no mistake about it: while Blashill is a very popular target for criticism across Red Wings fandom, if you think he doesn’t deserve at least some credit for what this team is doing this season, I regret to inform you that you’re wrong.
Blashill Proves He’s Good with the Kids
Since he arrived in the summer of 2015, the chief selling point on Blashill has always been that he’s great with young players. That was evidenced throughout his coaching career during stops with Ferris State, Miami University, the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League, Western Michigan University – all situations where he coached kids and young adults, all while finding varying levels of success at each stop. He then led the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate, to the franchise’s first Calder Cup championship in 2013. That team was led by players like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Danny DeKeyser and Petr Mrazek, all of which have gone on to have fruitful careers of their own.
But you already knew that, right?
After he became the head coach of the Red Wings, his ability to develop young players was put to the test over the next few years as players like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, Andreas Athanasiou, Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski joined the team. Considering only half of those players are still with the Red Wings, his methods haven’t always hit the mark – though there’s an argument to be made that just because a player has a certain potential does not mean that they can live up to it.
All the while, the Red Wings’ roster was filled with veterans in the back-nine of their careers that were also signed to albatross contracts. Blashill, over time, made the transition from leaning on those veterans to reducing their minutes and then, eventually, removing them from the lineup completely. This is a deep contrast to this season’s team, whose average age (26) is the lowest it’s been in this writer’s lifetime. This season’s team is built around 25 and 26-year-olds such as Larkin and Bertuzzi, but the team’s early success can be attributed a great deal to Moritz Seider (20 years old), Lucas Raymond (19) and Alex Nedeljkovic (25).
Sure, Seider and Raymond are two top-10 draft picks that arguably were always going to be great players, but we’ve already seen during Blashill’s tenure that high potential doesn’t always translate at the NHL level – this isn’t a Red Wings-exclusive thing. The players deserve credit for their talent and high hockey IQ, but the coach has put them in a place to succeed, and has rewarded them with more opportunities to succeed as the season has gone on. Raymond is playing on the top line and is among the league leaders in points; Seider ranks second on the team in ice time and is almost always on the ice in the biggest moments. When they make mistakes, Blashill and his coaching staff are always quick to jump on the teaching moment. When things are going well, Blashill lets his players enjoy the moment and each other.
In fact, Raymond might be the best example of what Blashill has been able to do this season. Consider that as an 18-year-old last season in the Swedish Hockey League, Raymond had just six goals and 18 points through 34 games while playing for a talented Frölunda team. This season in the NHL, he currently has 10 goals and 22 points through just 24 games. Raymond didn’t magically turn into an offensive dynamo overnight – the talent was always there. That’s why the Red Wings made him the fourth pick of the 2020 draft. The difference is that his NHL coach recognized his talent and has him playing on one of the most exciting lines in hockey, and with an average time on ice of 17:11, Blashill isn’t giving him more than he can handle.
When the Red Wings needed to play low-event hockey last season to stay in games, Blashill got the players to buy-in. Now that the team has more firepower this season, Detroit is playing a looser style which more closely resembles the championship team the coach had in Grand Rapids. The players, young and old, still respond to this coach, and that’s impressive given that this is his seventh year with the team.
Yzerman’s Seal of Approval
On April 19, 2019, the Red Wings announced that franchise legend Steve Yzerman was taking over as general manager (GM). His task was (and still is) to rebuild the Red Wings after the previous regime left the team bereft of talent both on the roster and in the prospect pool. However, just a couple weeks prior to that announcement, the Red Wings announced that Blashill was signed to a two-year extension, cementing the fact that he would be Yzerman’s coach at least during the first year of his tenure as GM.
Two years later, Yzerman signed Blashill to another two-year extension while also directing the media and fans to reexamine how they judge the coach.
“We have to have a better team,” Yzerman said. “It’s up to the management to provide players that make us a better team. You need good players to win in the league. I can change coaches year after year after year… we need to have good players, and if (we don’t), it’s not going to change.”
This essentially echoed the sentiment he shared in the final weeks of the 2019-20 season while the Red Wings were in the midst of one of the worst seasons in league history.
““It’s unfair to judge Jeff Blashill on our team’s record, it really is. I put this team together. I had expectations for the year. I don’t think this team is a playoff team honestly,” Yzerman said. ““I can tell you that Jeff has done a very good job, he and his staff, with these players. It’s been a very difficult season, and I think they’ve managed it very well and coached the team very well.”
This is ultimately why I wrote that, despite being extended by Yzerman this past offseason, the 2021-22 season represented Blashill’s first “prove it” season in the Yzerman era. With the addition of players like Raymond, Seider, Nedeljkovic and Pius Suter, the Red Wings added a considerable amount of talent. When you add that much talent, you expect the win total to climb.
Well, it looks like that win total is heading north in a big way.
Blashill Won’t Win the Jack Adams….Will He?
A prerequisite for any Jack Adams candidate is that their team makes the playoffs. In fact, leading a team to the playoffs after missing the prior season is almost guaranteed to win you the trophy, unless another coach did something crazy like lead an expansion team to the Stanley Cup Final. That being established, it’s easy to see why Blashill likely isn’t going to take home any hardware this offseason: the Red Wings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs.
While this team is clearly heading in the right direction, there are still too many teams around them that you simply cannot write off as the playoff hunt heats up. Even the Islanders, sitting at 5-10-3, are a nice winning streak away from re-entering the contender conversation. The Red Wings are still rebuilding, and just finishing around .500 would have to be seen as a successful season.
As it is right now, Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter and Anaheim Ducks coach Dallas Eakins have to be considered the frontrunners for the Jack Adams Award. Both coaches have turned their teams around after both franchises languished in mediocrity over the last few years. But if the Red Wings somehow find themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the final weeks of the season – something that’s starting to seem more and more possible as the weeks go on – and they manage to sneak into a wild card spot, all bets are off.
And wouldn’t that be a turn of events for the ages?
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I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.