Detroit Red Wings mailbag: Why is Jeff Blashill still Steve Yzerman’s coach?

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Jeff Blashill and select members of his staff have returned to Little Caesars Arena to prepare the Detroit Red Wings for the coming season.

They can’t officially have anything to do with the players, many of whom are skating at the practice facility inside LCA, until training camp opens, but the December activity is a nice change after months of working from home. COVID-19 has pushed the 2020-21 season to 2021 alone, with the NHL and NHL Players Association agreeing to parameters of a deal expected to start the season in mid-January. 

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I spoke with Jeff Blashill at length about the coming season, including lineups, the captaincy, and testing protocols.That article led to the first question in this mailbag.

“My question is how does Blashill still have a job?  What does Steve Yzerman see about him that the regular fan doesn’t see. His record is terrible. If [Jim] Harbaugh is on the hot seat why isn’t Blashill? Thank you for your time.” – Aaron R.

Yzerman opted not to make a coaching change when he took over as general manager in April 2019, which was within weeks of former GM Ken Holland (a close friend of Yzerman’s) giving Blashill a two-year extension. Yzerman has endorsed Blashill multiple times: Before the 2019-20 season, at the trade deadline, and again after the season ended. Yzerman said it’s unfair to judge Blashill based on the 17-49-5 record, because the roster needs to be better before Blashill can be fairly assessed. Yzerman pointed to the fact that over the last three trade deadlines, the Wings have moved out skilled players in order to gain future assets.

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No doubt, last season was terrible. But what was Blashill supposed to do about Jimmy Howard, who struggled so much in goal he won only twice in 27 starts?

Yzerman signed Calvin Pickard in 2019 as insurance in net, but in Pickard’s first outing, he allowed six goals on 35 shots. He appeared in three games for the Wings, posting a 5.46 goals-against average and .797 save percentage. Yzerman traded for Eric Comrie in early December, but he lasted just three games, posting a 4.28 GAA and .864 save percentage before he was placed on waivers.

Blashill played Jonathan Bernier as much as possible but had to give him a spell now and then. Howard wasn’t able to finish his last two starts.

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It wasn’t just in goal the Wings lacked depth. They were a one-line team, relying on Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha for 40% of their goals — and remember, Mantha played only 43 of 71 games because of injuries. Both Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou missed all of January, and just as they returned, Filip Zadina was injured. Other than Robby Fabbri (14 goals), the other forwards contributed next to nothing offensively.

On defense, the Wings were so banged up they rolled through 14 players. Filip Hronek’s 31 points accounted for 33% of the production the team got from the back end. Danny DeKeyser, whose 22:04 led the team in average ice time in 2018-19, was lost eight games into the season. None of the defenseman played all 71 games.

So that is what Yzerman saw: A roster too weak to fairly judge the coach.

With NHL season on horizon, Detroit Red Wings face mountain of questions ]

As for the second part of the question: Blashill is on the hot seat. He is entering the last year of his contract and will be in charge of an improved roster.

Yzerman has made multiple changes, bringing in forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan, defensemen Marc Staal, Jon Merrill and Troy Stecher, and goaltender Thomas Greiss. With the caveat that injuries can change things, the perception is the Wings can put together three scoring lines, solid defensive pairs, and have two goaltenders who’ll give them a chance to win.

They don’t look like a playoff team, but they will be expected to be more competitive.

“With the pandemic and everything, who will the Wings have at the World Juniors?”  – L. Berry

Defenseman Moritz Seider has opted not to play for Germany at the event scheduled to start Dec. 25 in Edmonton without fans. He’s thriving playing for Rögle in the Swedish Hockey League, where Saturday he earned an assist for a third straight game (giving him two goals and nine assists in 15 games).

But at least the Swedish contingent is Wings-heavy, with 2020 first-round pick Lucas Raymond headlining a group that also includes fellow forwards Theodor Niederbach (second round, 2020) and Elmer Soderblom (sixth round, 2019), and defensemen Albert Johansson (second round, 2019) and Gustav Berglund (sixth round, 2019). Defenseman Eemil Viro (third round, 2020) is on Finland’s roster and goaltender Jan Bednar (fourth round, 2020) will play for the Czech Republic.

A Perfect Holiday Gift

What: “The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings.”

Author: Helene St. James, who has covered the Red Wings at the Detroit Free Press since 1996. Foreword by Chris Osgood, winner of three Stanley Cups as a Wings goaltender.

Publisher: Triumph Books.

Pages: 336 pages (paperback).

Price: $16.95.

Availability: Available in leading bookstores and online from booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the book: “The Big 50” brings to life the men and moments that made the Red Wings such a dynamic and iconic franchise for nearly a century. The book features never-before-told stories about the greats such as Howe, Yzerman, Lidstrom and Lindsay, the near-greats beloved by fans and the great memories of Fight Night, the Fabulous Fifties, the Team for the Ages, the Grind Line, The Joe and much more.

Get it signed! For a personalized copy of “The Big 50,” contact St. James at hstjames@freepress.com

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 Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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