Jeff Blashill is a polarizing figure in Hockeytown. Mention his name to any fan and you’re bound to get array of reactions that range from “He’s done a great job” to “Stuff him into the trunk of my car and I’ll drive it into the Detroit River”. So yesterday, when Blashill’s two-year extension with the Red Wings was finally made official, the online reaction was interesting to dive into.
The truth is, it’s hard for people on the outside to properly judge the performance of any coach. Is young players’ development due to his coaching or would they have developed this way without him? Do his systems not work because they are bad systems or because the players aren’t good enough to play them? Does the presence of veterans really make a difference in the on-ice development of rookies? Without being in the room and truly understanding what happens between player and coach and then between coach and management, all we can really do is comment on the on-ice product and, to an extent, what’s said to the media.
So with that in mind, I’ve taken my outsider’s perspective on the Red Wings head coach’s tenure so far and his new extension. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Jeff Blashill contract extension:
When Blashill was brought on board, the Red Wings were already on the downswing. Their star players were getting older and the talent was wearing thin. A year into his NHL career, he lost Pavel Datsyuk. Then, the team fell out of playoff contention and a steady decline through the standings took place. Three years in, he lost Henrik Zetterberg.
There’s a lot of negativity wrapped up in falling from grace so quickly, but through it all, a phoenix has risen from the ashes in the form of four U25 prospects. Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, and Tyler Bertuzzi are carrying this team through some pretty heavy competition right now. But it wasn’t always like that. Over the last three years, they’ve developed into the dominating foursome that they are now.
You could argue that they’ve developed despite Blashill, but his management of their ice time over the last three years has climaxed now into a powerhouse top line that is leading the league in scoring over the last week and a half.
NHL Point Leaders Since March 23rd (via NHL.com)
Blashill has built a sense of responsibility in these young, cornerstone players. He successfully transitioned Larkin and Athanasiou from playing the wing to being strong two-way centremen and I suspect the same is coming for Michael Rasmussen over the next two seasons.
Also, the players seem to be big fans of him. “It’s a players’ thing to talk about the coach. Everyone does it, every locker room does it,” Larkin told Arthur J. Regner of NHL.com. “It’s always positive (about Blashill). He’s a great communicator, he lets you know where you stand. People appreciate that, guys appreciate that. There’s no gray area. He wants everyone to succeed, he wants the team to succeed.”
Yes, he’s done a great job of managing his young players’ ice time, but one of the most frustrating parts of Blashill as a coach is his line combinations. Not only does he not seem to play the players’ strengths off of each other, he never leaves them together long enough to build any chemistry. Every day, it seems players have to re-adapt to a new line mate while trying to play a system that they are having a hard time succeeding with.
This is, in part, out of Blashill’s hands. He’s been given a roster that has a lot of dead weight tied up in big money. But it’s the coach’s job to find balance between this dead weight and the true talent to arm the team with the right tools and strategies to win games. It doesn’t seem like he has found a competent way of balancing that yet. For starters, there is a perceived injustice about how the veterans are treated vs. the young players. He could start to hold the veterans a little more accountable by reducing their ice time when they make poor decisions.
Having to withstand another two years of line shuffling and confusing combinations sounds like a headache I don’t need, but I don’t expect it to stop.
For me, the only ugly that’s part of this extension is the fan reaction. Wherever I go, Blashill is being ripped by fans who have grown to hate him as a coach (no, not just hate, they loathe him), when in reality he’s been fine. Over the last few years, he’s been a mediocre coach with a bad roster. Now that the young players are coming into their own, the reaction has largely been, “See!? See what happens when you play them???”. That’s not really fair to the work Blashill has done with these players so far.
But you see this all the time. When people’s minds are made up about something, it becomes very hard to change them. I suspect a coaching change for better or worse would be a welcome change in Hockeytown. At this point, the only way to change people’s minds is to bring the team back to the playoffs. That means winning.
But at the end of the day, the opinions of the fans don’t matter. The only opinions that truly matter about Jeff Blashill are those in the owner’s box and his players. He must be achieving some metric of success in their eyes to earn a contract extension and continue his work as head coach as the Detroit Red Wings.
Some of us love him. Some of us don’t mind him. And some of us hate him.
All of us just want to win.