It’s hard to believe that Jeff Blashill will soon be finishing his fourth season as bench boss of the Detroit Red Wings. His first game as coach is one Red Wings fans will never forget. Dylan Larkin made his NHL debut (and scored his first NHL goal), and Justin Abdelkader netted a hat-trick to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-0 and spoil the recently departed Mike Babcock’s return to Joe Louis Arena.
Alas, the next 306 games haven’t been smooth sailing. They fought and clawed their way to a playoff win in his rookie season, but have since plummeted to one of the NHL’s pushover teams, set to pick in the top-10 for the third consecutive season.
Ken Holland & co. have a decision to make on the former Western Michigan University head coach, whose current contract expires at the end of the season.
Blashill’s career record to date is 127-134-46 for a .489 winning percentage. Not exactly a sparkling resume but how fair is it to put all the blame on him when you look at what he has at his disposal? He had to watch Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg walk out the door and no replacement to aid the holes left.
The most important part of his time with the organization since being promoted in 2015-16 is the growth of the Red Wings younger players. While his methods of development have been heavily scrutinized, he has done a phenomenal job at getting results. Dylan Larkin, through plenty of adversity, has turned into a budding star. Larkin’s growth is without a doubt Blashill’s biggest success story, but his persistent work with Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou has not gone unnoticed.
While it hasn’t come easy, Blashill stuck to his guns on young players earning their spot in the lineup, even if their elders didn’t contribute as much. Now, Mantha and Athanasiou are finally realizing their potential. Tyler Bertuzzi has been a smashing hit as well. They needed to take one step back, to take two steps forward, if you will, and this has been repeating itself for the last two years, and the patience has paid off. The latest three game stretch has been the best hockey of Anthony Mantha’s career. Blashill deserves a lot of credit for that.
We’re seeing this same game of cat and mouse with the Red Wings defensive prospects. Dennis Cholowski and Filip Hronek are both going to need to bang the door down if they want to play. While it is important for the Red Wings to go young, which hasn’t been to the extent as expected this season, it’s even more important that these youngsters develop into more than just accessories.
Blashill’s tough love has proven to be a recipe for success.
Of course, his time with Detroit hasn’t been flawless. After the embarrassing loss to Montreal where they conceded 10 goals in the 2017-18 season, I was ready to pull the plug. It felt as though he lost the room. His dependency on having grit in the lineup is another one of his shortcomings. But let’s remember, he is a young coach who, just like his players, is evolving.
In fact, we’re seeing signs of him becoming more open-minded. His decision to scratch Jonathan Ericsson in favor of Hronek was quite surprising to me. Abdelkader playing on the first line is hard to justify, but lets not deny he has spent more time on the fourth line than anywhere else.
If we look at how the forward group has been receiving ice-time over the course of the season, Larkin, Mantha, Athanasiou, Bertuzzi, and Gustav Nyquist are receiving the most ice-time.
Off-ice I don’t think there is much to scoff at either. Blashill carries himself very well, and makes it clear that anything less than 100% is unacceptable. That attitude is exactly what you want to see if/when the Red Wings can ice a much more competitive roster. Blashill has the intangibles to get the most out of his players.
Bringing back Blashill next season may seem like the conservative move. But I see it more as a young coach who is getting better and so are his young players.