The one skill Jeff Blashill can’t wait to evaluate from young Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Self-reflection and re-education. Exit meetings via Zoom. Avoiding the temptation to speculate because things change weekly, if not daily.

More than six months have passed since the Detroit Red Wings high-tailed it home from Washington, their March 12 game on hold — permanently, as it turned out — by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The NHL canceled the rest of the season in late May, leaving the Wings 17-49-5 and wondering when they might have the relief of embarking on a new season.

That answer still isn’t clear: maybe December, maybe not till January. At least October should bring some clarity to the roster, with the draft slated for Oct. 6-7. General manager Steve Yzerman is also expected to dip into free agency when it begins Oct. 9.

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Head coach Jeff Blashill discussed the long time off and the uncertainty of next season in a Q&A with the Free Press:

What has it been like to be away from the ice for so long? 

“When the pause first happened, I thought it gave myself a chance to reflect and look at my foundation of coaching and make sure that, as the years have gone by, I had a chance to kind of reset and get back to what is extremely important to me in coaching — both from a people management standpoint and from an Xs-and-Os standpoint. So it gave time for great self-reflection.

“And then after that period of time, what happened among a number of coaches is, we started participating in a lot of Zoom calls; some in large groups, some in smaller groups with just three or four coaches. We really just got to hear ideas from different people, have some real good conversations about different ways to do things. So I would call that a period of discovery, learning different methods and learning the way other people do things.”

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How did your focus change as it became clearer the season was unlikely to resume?

“I had the opportunity to meet with every player via Zoom. I went through a development plan with each player, not knowing exactly what our summer was going to look like. As we went through the summer, I definitely had more opportunity to spend time with family than I ever have, and that’s been great.”

Normally you’d be readying for a new season this time of year. What have you been able to do to prepare for 2020-21?

“Without knowing our roster yet, without the free agency period, and any trades that would come after, we look at our group and have an idea of some different potentials, but we really don’t know our roster. We don’t know what training camp will look like when it does happen. We don’t know for sure if, as one of the seven teams that wasn’t part of the return to playoffs, if we’ll have an opportunity to skate earlier.”

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I know players have found ways to work out and skate where they can, and some of the younger guys are with teams in Europe, but what’s the level of concern that most have been away from a team-structured environment for so long?

“I look at this as there are two sides: One is the negative side of the fact that we’ve been off for a longer period of time in terms of formal skates than any of these players will have ever experienced. There’s a concern there — you lose timing. But all of our players have found a way to get on the ice somehow, even if it’s meant going to different locations. I know guys have been skating individually, but that’s not necessarily the same you do as a hockey team. So there is concern for that, and we are behind the eight-ball considering we are one of the teams that wasn’t able to get together this summer. That’s why I’m hoping we’ll be able to get some skating in ahead of camp to make up for that.

[ How Detroit Red Wings are preparing top prospects with no camp: ‘Huge lost opportunity’ ]

“Now, the other side is the positive: We have a number of young players, and one of the things that is a barrier for young players to have success in the NHL is that their bodies just aren’t as physically mature as the men they’re going up against because they’re younger. So they have had the opportunity to get their body to a spot of physical maturity closer to those men that they play against on a day-to-day basis. A young player having six months in the weight room normally doesn’t happen. Now, the supervision is different than in a normal year where you have more contact with them, so it’s really about guys having inner drive — which guys found a way to use whatever weights were available to them, whatever they could use to train and maximize their bodies. I think inner drive will really show during this stretch and I hope that our guys had the opportunity to strengthen their bodies.”

How often are you in contact with Steve?

“I’ve had regular contact with him. It’s not necessarily every day; some weeks more than others. But we talk regularly to discuss all the situations that have been going on and how we can best maximize our group and how we can plan best. That part has been seamless. We just take whatever information is available and make the best decisions we can.”

We don’t even know yet if next season will start in December or January, and if minor leagues will be able to function, given the uncertainty of fan attendance. How tough is it to make any concrete plans?

“There’s almost so much unknown that we’ve tried not to speculate. In terms of the planning, we have an idea of how long training camp would be, we have an idea of the number of exhibition games. I’m not saying we know, but we have an idea. We think we’re looking at about a two-week training camp rather than traditional three-week training camp. But we have no idea what the American league is going to look like, we have no idea what our schedule will look like, we have no idea on any of that. So rather than speculate, we’ve waited to see what the next day brings.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Detroit Red Wings will be published in October by Triumph Books. To preorder, go to Amazon.

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