Jeff Blashill Entering “Prove it” Season with the Red Wings

There may not be another figure in Detroit sports that sparks the kind of….passionate….responses like Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill does.

“One thing you learn in coaching,” Blashill said during his year-end press availability, “is to have very think skin and to stay off social media.”

To be fair, as the man that has overseen the worst stretch of Red Wings hockey since the 80’s, it’s no wonder fans are yearning for a new voice behind the bench. Despite this, general manager Steve Yzerman awarded the head coach a two-year deal to remain at the helm of the rebuilding club. “Blash” is here to stay – for now.

“I’ve been a Red Wing a long time now. I love being a Red Wing,” the team’s first Michigan-born head coach said. “More important though, I want to continue to see this organization get to a better tomorrow.”

In the Yzerman era, Blashill has a record of 36-76-15 for a points-percentage (P%) of 34.2%. Across his full six seasons behind Detroit’s bench, he has a record of 172-221-62 for a P% of 44.6%. Many coaches have been let go for better records than this, and yet Yzerman stuck with and extended a coach the he himself did not hire. With the remains of the Ken Holland era almost completely erased from the Red Wings’ roster, this is Yzerman’s team now, and Blashill is Yzerman’s coach.

With that fact comes expectations. While a vast majority of fans and pundits expect the Red Wings to miss the playoffs once again, that same majority can agree that this team has improved immensely over the course of this offseason.

The same old excuses are running out. Armed with a new contract and faith from arguably the most popular GM in the league right now, the impetus is on Blashill to make good on what got him hired as the head coach in the first place. If he really has the goods to lead this team beyond the rebuilding years, the time is now for him to prove it.

Scoring Within A System

With a goals-for per-game (GF/GP) rate of 2.23 this past season, it goes without saying that the Red Wings need to find ways to score more. There are many reasons why the team struggled to score as badly as they did, whether it’s Dylan Larkin posting the second-worst scoring rate of his career or injuries that kept Detroit from icing their full lineup for almost the entire season. However, Blashill had the Red Wings adopt a low-event style that prioritized defense over offense, and many point to that as stymying the team’s offensive growth. In fact, over his tenure with the Red Wings, Detroit’s GF/GP ranks last in the league at an abysmal 2.44 (the 30th-ranked team is the Buffalo Sabres at 2.53.)

That does not mean, however, that low-event hockey is Blashill’s preferred way to play. For a team without any elite scorers and an okay defense at best, it made little sense for Detroit to play a run-and-gun style this past season. The coach decided to lean into his team’s limitations and create a game-plan that allowed the Red Wings to stay in a majority of their games. Losing games 3-1 feels a lot better than losing games 6-2.

“The hardest way to win in this league is…to just score and try to outscore your mistakes,” Blashill said. “You don’t need to lead the league in goals-for in order to be a really good team.”

During Blashill’s 2012-13 Calder Cup run with the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins, the Griffins averaged 3.08 GF/GP. His best season with the Red Wings in terms of GF/GP was the 2018-19 campaign where Detroit averaged 2.73 GF/GP. It’s not a coincidence that the 2018-19 season is also when Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou combined for 62 goals. All the while, the head coach was preaching strong two-way play to his team – this is not a new thing.

“Good offense comes from being sound defensively,” Blashill has noted on multiple occasions.

Jeff Blashill Detroit Red Wings
Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While the offensive production has never been top-tier under Blashill, the roster and offensive players haven’t exactly been top-tier either. The most common defense of the 47-year-old coach is that “even Scotty Bowman couldn’t win with this roster.” Yzerman seems to agree, mentioning during his year-end press availability that the team needs to add more talent before the wins will start coming. That being said, with the additions of Nick Leddy, Pius Suter and Alex Nedeljkovic – as well as (hopefully) full seasons from Jakub Vrana and Tyler Bertuzzi – the Red Wings have added some quality players to the team.

This is why this season is a turning point in Blashill’s tenure. By adding talent to the roster, Yzerman has raised the bar in terms of what amounts to a “successful” season. The Red Wings brought in Alex Tanguay as a new assistant coach to breathe new life into the team’s power play. You hope to see an offensive-minded player like Filip Zadina take another step forward in terms of his offensive production. Continued struggles with scoring more than one or two goals on a given night is only going to amplify the cries for Blashill’s head. While the team may not be able to “outscore their problems”, they definitely need to outscore the Red Wings teams of the last couple of years.

Wins/Losses; X’s & O’s

Nobody is going to debate that increased offensive production is a MUST on Blashill’s 2021-22 grade sheet. What is up for debate, however, is whether or not the Red Wings need to hit a certain amount of wins during the season. Yzerman has made it clear that he expects this team to continue to take steps forward after clearly making progress during this past season. The head coach agrees.

“I’ve had success, I know what it takes. It takes steps in the right direction with as few steps in the wrong direction. It’s not one giant leap. It take the continual process of getting better and better….”

Blashill clearly understands that regression is not an option if his team is going to have a successful season. “I think there was good foundation laid for the type of hockey you have to play to be successful. Now we gotta build on that starting next year,” he said.

From a team perspective, the Red Wings’ 19 wins this past season equates to 27 wins in a full 82-game season. With the added talent this offseason as well as growth from the team’s young players, Detroit’s benchmark for success and “taking steps in the right direction” would be anywhere from 30 to 35 wins in 2021-22. I would approach that number with caution, however – even if all the team’s skaters take those steps forward, all it would take is shaky goaltending to completely derail the season. Nedeljkovic has already been anointed as the team’s savior in net, but he has only played 29 games at the NHL level. He needs to prove himself before we can confidently stick to our 30 to 35-win benchmark.

Nedeljkovic is just one individual that needs to show up next season. The Red Wings as a whole are filled with players that have something to prove. Blashill has always been heralded as a developmental coach that knows how to get the best out of his players. Entering the third year of the Yzerman era, Detroit’s best players are all in their early to mid-20’s. It’s on the coach to get the most out of players like Larkin, Vrana and Bertuzzi while also continuing to build up players like Zadina and Filip Hronek. Oh, and by the way, a rookie by the name of Moritz Seider should be joining the team, and building on his successful season in the Swedish Hockey League is an absolute must.

The juggling act that Blashill must perform in 2021-22 is developing the team’s young players while also putting the team in a position to win games on a more regular basis. As easy as it is for me to type those words, it is just as hard to actually get it done.

A Reflection of His Players

In his introductory press conference on June 9, 2015, Blashill shared some prescient words about his team and his role as their coach.

“Coaches are ultimately a reflection of their players.”

This rings true of any coach. A running joke about the Jack Adams Award (awarded to the league’s best coach) is that it’s actually awarded to the coach that had the best goaltending. Another line of thinking is that the award essentially goes to the team that defied expectations more than any other team. While coaches can change the vibe of a locker room or the systems in which the players play, it’s the players that ultimately determine whether or not a coach is successful. Even Scotty Bowman would have a lot fewer wins to his credit if those Red Wings teams of his weren’t as loaded as they were. Even former Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock owes a lot of his résumé to the prime years of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg‘s career.

Scotty Bowman
Jeff Blashill is no Scotty Bowman, but he also hasn’t had the quality of teams that Bowman had (Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images)

Giving Blashill the benefit of the doubt, if he is going to be a reflection of his players, then theoretically the narrative surrounding him should start to shift this coming season. The team seems to have gotten better, so Blash should follow that same progression. If we enter the new year and the Red Wings are getting the same old results, it will become clear that the Red Wings are a reflection of Blashill, not the other way around.

In this writer’s opinion, the argument that Blashill hasn’t had the players to yield better results does hold some water. That Yzerman extended him despite a 36-76-15 record since taking over tells me that the GM believes that theory to some extent as well. But the coach’s new two-year deal is far from a sign of blind faith. Slowly but surely, the Red Wings’ roster has gotten better and better. Yzerman has held up his end of the bargain.

If better players make for a better coach, it’s time for Blashill to prove that he knows what to do with them.

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