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 Devin Little, Patrick Brown, and Kyle Knopp are the muckers who make up THW’s forechecking unit and sound off on Red Wings topics.
With six games remaining in 2020-21, the Detroit Red Wings have tied their total wins from last season in fewer games. While this season was supposed to be measured according to their development more than their wins, it is nice to see the Red Wings with some victories while they continue to rebuild.
Due to season-ending injuries to Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, Frans Nielsen, and Bobby Ryan, and with Robby Fabbri still considered day-to-day, the Red Wings will rely more on their younger players to perform down the stretch. This will also allow general manager Steve Yzerman to see what head coach Jeff Blashill can do with the future of the organization.
Blashill is the third longest-tenured coach in the NHL, behind the Winnipeg Jets’ Paul Maurice and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Jon Cooper, with a 170-219-60 record in six seasons behind the Red Wings bench. As Helene St. James reported, Blashill and his assistants, Dan Bylsma and Doug Houda, are all on expiring contracts, but Blashill’s salary at “$1.6 million is all the more reasonable, given the pandemic has greatly limited revenues for more than a year,” (from ‘Steve Yzerman to discuss Detroit Red Wings coaching job with Jeff Blashill at season’s end,’ Detroit Free Press, April 12, 2021).
In this week’s edition of The Grind Line, we ask our muckers to discuss their thoughts on whether Blashill and his staff should be extended and how long their contracts should be, or should Yzerman go in a different direction and, if so, with who as the head coach?
Devin Little: Kick the Can Down the Road
At the end of the day, I’ll be confident in whatever decision Yzerman makes, but to answer this prompt about the Red Wings, I’m going to first offer up some Chicago Blackhawks trivia: of the players that constituted the roster that won them the 2010 Stanley Cup, 22 of them were on the team and played for them in some fashion the prior season. Now, with that in mind, I ask: how many players on the 2020-21 Red Wings roster do you think will be on their next Stanley Cup team?
To me, the answer is not many – we’re talking about a handful of players at best. Because of that, I have no interest in hiring the Red Wings’ version of Joel Quenneville at this time. You don’t hire a five-star chef and then hand them three-star ingredients.
If the Red Wings are going to make a change, it has to be somebody with a proven track record of developing young players, kind of like what Blashill did with Western Michigan University and the Grand Rapids Griffins. In fact, I’d argue that this season is proof that he can continue to be that developmental coach for the Red Wings. Just as quickly as you can blame the man for the failures of Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, you should also credit him for the progress shown by Filip Zadina, Filip Hronek, and Michael Rasmussen.
I don’t necessarily care what Blashill’s record is with guys like Bobby Ryan, Valtteri Filppula, and Marc Staal on the roster; I care how he fares with guys like Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond on the team. Give him a two-year deal — one year with a second-year option — and see how he does as guys like Seider and Raymond join the team. At that point, the Red Wings’ problems will become less and less about a lack of talent and more about how that talent is utilized.
Pat Brown: Award a “Show Me” Contract
It’s interesting. A few months ago, the Red Wings were in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Blashill would not be retained at the end of the season, assuming he wasn’t shown the door before then. Three months later, there’s no reason to believe anyone other than Blashill will be the coach next season.
This oft-injured team has gone 15-23-8 since that string of losses, weathering each storm sent their way while quietly equaling last year’s win total in 21 fewer games. It’s not that Detroit is suddenly a juggernaut, but the fact that they played even marginally well despite constantly rotating out stars like Larkin, Ryan, Fabbri, and Bertuzzi speaks to how the team has responded to their coach this season.
Moreover, who do you bring in? Blashill has been successful essentially at every level he has coached to this point, and as Devin pointed out, the real gauge of his success begins by evaluating prospects like Raymond, Seider, Jonatan Berggren, etc., and their development. So, give him a chance, and sign him to a one-year deal with an option for a second and let’s see how the kids respond in a full season on the world’s biggest stage.
Kyle Knopp: Blashill Stays, But He Shouldn’t
Yzerman will do exactly what Pat and Devin have outlined above, offer Blashill a one-year extension with a second-year option based on performance metrics decided during the offseason. The GM allowed Blashill to finish out his contract that was extended by Ken Holland, and with a slight improvement from last season to this one, it seems certain that they will come to an agreement moving forward.
However, what Yzerman should do is move on from Blashill and revamp the coaching staff. He has already shown that he is willing to veer from the initial plan by trading Mantha at the deadline. Why should bringing in a new coach be any different?
Who cares what Blashill’s record is with players like Filppula – you ask, forgetting that he was the coach that helped develop Filppula. In his first season as an assistant coach with the Red Wings, Filppula had the best season of his career, recording 23 goals and 43 assists in 81 games. His only other season with more than 50 points since then was his first with the Lightning after he was traded from Detroit two seasons later. Blashill was also the coach in charge of the development for Danny DeKeyser and Luke Glendening while they were in the AHL, so his record with these types of players is important after all.
Let the young players develop under Blashill. He has done well with Zadina, Hronek, and Rasmussen – you argue, failing to see that he is not using these players properly. Zadina has scored 15 of his 36 points, or 41.7% of his point production, on the power play, yet only 14.5% of his ice time is on the man advantage (185:18 on the power play in 1279:30 total ice time). In Rasmussen’s three seasons with the organization, he has scored 30 points in 45 games with the Griffins while only posting 28 points in 96 games with the Red Wings. Yes, the NHL is a better league, but these numbers point to underlying issues with the coaching staff.
This is even more evident in Hronek, who leads the team with a minus-17 despite that he is tied for the team lead in points. Considering his scoring per 60 minutes at even strength stats over his career, Hronek’s playmaking ability has suffered under Blashill. While his assists per 60 minutes at even strength have remained the same (after dropping 32 points in his sophomore season), Hronek’s primary assist rate decreased while his secondary assist rate increased. This shows that his offensive creativity is being held back in favor of playing a more defensive game that does not translate well to his style of play.
Who do you bring in — you question, not remembering that I recently laid out five good options for the Red Wings to consider. However, to make it easy, I will choose one that I think would not only be great for youth development but also has a history of winning with teams that are expected to be basement dwellers.
Why not sign Gerard Gallant to a three-year deal and see what he can do with this incoming crop of talent? Gallant was responsible for the development of a young Rick Nash with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Josh Bailey as a rookie with the New York Islanders, and a teenaged Jonathan Huberdeau during his formative years in the QMJHL. Oh yeah, he also led the island of misfit toys to the Stanley Cup Final in the first season of the Vegas Golden Knights’ existence.
Not to say that the Red Wings will go to the Cup Final next year if Gallant is hired, but after six unproductive seasons with Blashill, a coach on a stopgap might not be the worst thing for this team.
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Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings for The Hockey Writers and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.