Call it what you want — déjà vu, Groundhog Day, a glitch in the Matrix — the results are the same. The Detroit Red Wings get roughed up against a team, regroup and have a hard-nosed practice, come out with determination for the next series, only to get roughed up again. The team’s inconsistency has been their only constant this season.
Detroit will limp into the final quarter of the 2020-21 NHL season with a 13-23-6 record, fourth-worst in the league while trailing only the Buffalo Sabres for the fewest goals scored. However, the Sabres have three games in hand and should easily jump the Red Wings in that category by the time they hit the 42-game mark.
With the rebuild in full swing, prospects waiting in the wings to get their shot at a roster spot, and the young players making the most of their opportunities, general manager Steve Yzerman must prepare to make a change behind the bench for next season.
Change Needs to Happen
While there’s an argument to be made why Yzerman has yet to pull the trigger on a new coach, the fact is, the Jeff Blashill era needs to end. Blashill led the Red Wings to a third-place finish in the division during his first season as head coach but has since had one fifth-place finish, two seventh-place finishes, and two eighth-place finishes in the past five seasons.
A coach in charge of a young core going through a rebuild needs to be able to develop and advance the talent in his system. Blashill has been a member of the Red Wings’ coaching staff since 2011-12, first as an assistant coach under Mike Babcock before he took over as head coach of the Wings’ AHL affiliate, Grand Rapids Griffins, for three seasons. While the Griffins won the Calder Cup in Blashill’s first season, they made second and third-round exits in the playoffs the following two seasons with Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Dylan Larkin on the roster.
After the same players that he was in charge of on the Griffins made the jump with him to the NHLin 2015-16, Blashill led the Red Wings to a third place finish in the division and a first-round playoff exit. Since then, his win percentage has decreased almost every season, even though Detroit continues to build around their core. The problem is not that Blashill is afraid to try new line combinations, it’s that he’s been unable to find the chemistry needed to build off of them.
According to Dobber Sports, the Red Wings have tried 622 offensive line combinations at even strength this season. Only four other teams were over 500 — Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, and St. Louis Blues — and all were well shy of 550 combinations. While the teams that lead the league in scoring often have one or two established lines that average around 20% of the team’s total ice time, the Red Wings only have one line that earns more than 5% of the team’s ice time, at just under 187 minutes together. In fact, the line that ranks fourth in points together — Evgeny Svechnikov, Frans Nielsen, and Valtteri Filppula with six points — have only played a total of nine minutes together this season.
After all the opportunities to grow the team and with less and less to show for it each season, Yzerman needs to consider one of these coaches to replace Blashill.
Gallant was drafted 107th overall by the Red Wings in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft and spent nine seasons in Detroit, part of which as Yzerman’s teammate before he signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning. In his last six seasons as a head coach, Gallant maintained a win percentage of .523 or better and has one trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
While Gallant has yet to finish out a third season with an NHL club, his ability to match youth with experience and find line combinations that work could be just the thing for the Red Wings to use as a bridge between a complete restart and getting back into contention.
If Yzerman is looking for a coach with experience, look no further than Julien. With a Stanley Cup championship and a Winter Olympics gold medal on his resume, Julien would bring a winning mentality to the Red Wings locker room. He boasts a 667-455-10-152 record in 1,275 games coached in the NHL and took a Boston Bruins team that had young prospects like Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Patrice Bergeron to the Stanley Cup Final within four seasons.
Not to say that this Red Wings team has the same firepower that the Bruins had in the late 2000s, but with the right coach nurturing chemistry among his lines, anything could be possible.
Coaches to Consider Pursuing
Brind’Amour has led the resurgence of the Carolina Hurricanes for the past three seasons and, while his contract will expire at the end of this season, the Hurricanes will likely try to re-sign him. However, both sides might not be able to agree on what that next contract should look like.
Should Yzerman feel the urge, he could easily offer Brind’Amour the raise that the ex-Michigan State Spartan has earned while posting a career record of 111-63-15 in his three seasons in Raleigh.
Tocchet is another coach whose contract is set to expire after the season. He won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an assistant coach and has increased his win percentage each season with the Arizona Coyotes.
While he is still fairly green as an NHL head coach, Tocchet was an NHL player for 18 seasons and seven of his 12 seasons coaching as an NHL assistant. He has proven that he can take a rebuilding team and turn it into a playoff contender. The question is whether he wants to leave Arizona for the Michigan winters?
From Professor to Coach?
One final possibility being discussed is to bring back Detroit-favorite, Igor Larionov, as the next bench boss for the Red Wings. The three-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist was recently named the head coach of the Under-20 Russian National team, which could be seen as a stepping stone to an NHL coaching job.
Larionov doesn’t have the same coaching experience as some of the other candidates, but Yzerman made that gamble before, as when he hired Jon Cooper to head the Lightning. Larionov would bring a lot of excitement back to Hockeytown and with it a hockey-IQ that is largely unmatched.
Blashill’s contract is set to expire at the end of the 2021-22 season on a deal that was extended by Ken Holland. Yzerman confirmed that his coach would be safe through the rest of this season, but one has to think, given the team’s lack of development, that he will reconsider his position in the offseason.
The Red Wings have a ton of talented prospects getting ready to break into the NHL. Let’s hope we get to see them reach their potential before they are traded away to other organizations for proper development.
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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.