Niyo: Red Wings’ rebuild gives Jeff Blashill a reprieve, but for how long?

Detroit News

There isn’t much time, Jeff Blashill knows that.

But after what feels like an eternity without hockey, and after a season like the one his team endured before a pandemic put everything on ice back in March, Blashill also knows he’s in no position to complain.

“I just think we’re all looking forward to it,” the Red Wings’ head coach said Monday, with the start of training camp suddenly just a few days away. “I don’t care how much time they give us: I want to coach, and our guys want to play.”

Jeff Blashill

And knowing Blashill as we do by now – he’s beginning his sixth season behind Detroit’s bench, if you can believe that – his message to his team later this week at Little Caesars Arena will strike a similar tone: Be thankful for the opportunity, and don’t take it for granted.

“We’re pretty fortunate that we get a chance to coach in the NHL, that we get a chance to play in the NHL,” said Blashill, who, not coincidentally, is entering the final year of his contract in Detroit. “Let’s make sure we cherish every moment of it.”

That’s easier said than done when you’re mired in the muck the way Blashill’s team was a year ago at this time, nearing the end of a horrific stretch of hockey that saw the Wings lose 18 of 20 games but only partway through one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

The Wings recorded just 17 wins in 71 games before the COVID-19 pause – only the 1985-86 and ’76-77 teams lost more often here – and they weren’t all that competitive on many nights: Detroit finished with a goal differential of minus-122.

And yet among the Wings’ myriad offseason moves – the lineup likely will feature a half-dozen new names – finding a new head coach wasn’t anywhere on general manager Steve Yzerman’s to-do list.

Back in late May, when the Wings’ GM confirmed the team would be picking up the option year on Blashill’s 2019 contract extension, Yzerman said it would be “unfair” to judge the coach based on his record.

“Quite frankly, we need to improve the team for anybody to truly critique or assess the coaching staff,” Yzerman added. 

Now here we are seven months later, wondering just how much has changed in that regard.

‘Hunger to play’

Asked about expectations for the 2021 season – with an abbreviated 56-game schedule, realigned NHL divisions and considerable uncertainty thanks to all the COVID-19 protocols – Yzerman wasn’t offering any public mandates last week.

“I can’t really predict what we’re going to be,” he said. “I believe we’ll be improved. How much, I don’t know. I’m just anxious to get going.”

On that, at least, everyone can agree, considering the Wings will have gone more than 10 months without playing a game between the end of last season and their Jan. 14 home opener against Carolina.

More: After very long layoff, Jeff Blashill, Red Wings will go to camp with ‘totally clean’ slate

“I certainly know from our players’ perspective, there’s a hunger there, there’s a hunger to play,” Blashill said. “The slate is totally clean. That’s just the reality of what the new year brings. We’ve got a clean slate and let’s bring that hunger to the rink every single day.”

Whether that truly applies to Blashill, now the third-longest-tenured head coach in the league – trailing only Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice and Blashill’s pal, Jon Cooper, the reigning Stanley Cup champ in Tampa – remains to be seen.

How much improvement would Yzerman need to see for Blashill to continue on with this rebuilding effort in Detroit? That depends on how anxious Yzerman is to bring in his own hand-picked coach, and how close the GM thinks he is to putting a legitimate playoff contender on the ice. His answers – and his actions – back in May were telling on both fronts. Same goes for Blashill’s answers Monday when he was asked again in a roundabout way about his job security.

“There’s no quick fixes here,” Blashill said. “That’s just not the reality of what happens in sports and especially the position we’re in. We’re trying to get to a better tomorrow and I’ve committed to our group that we’re not taking any shortcuts.

“There’s no chance that we’re gonna try to win a game on Jan. 14 that, to do that, will hurt us in the long run. We’re gonna try to do things right to build this thing the right way and I’m committed to that.”

Packing more punch

The playoffs are still largely a pipe dream here, and even a sizeable step forward in 2021 would leave Blashill’s team well behind the pack. Remember, this is a team that ranked last in the league in goals for and goals against last season. (Detroit’s 3.73 GAA was the NHL’s highest in 20 years.)

The healthy return of Anthony Mantha, who missed 28 games due to injury last season and then signed a healthy contract extension (four years, $22.8 million) in November, will help. So should some of Yzerman’s free-agent signings, starting up front with Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov.

Anthony Mantha

They’ll give Blashill a better chance of generating some much-needed secondary scoring behind the Wings’ top line of Dylan Larkin, Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi that accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s scoring last season.

“We cannot be a one-line team, which we were too many times last year,” Blashill said. “I think those additions give us a chance to add more scoring punch.”

The 33-year-old Ryan, a former 30-goal scorer with plenty to prove at this stage of his career, and Sam Gagner, a trade-deadline addition who re-signed this offseason, also add some right-handed potency to a power play that was all wrong last winter.

But the trick for Blashill will be finding some line combinations that work without any preseason games to experiment. Along with that, there may be some roster decisions to make with young players and prospects like Evgeni Svechnikov, Michael Rasmussen and Givani Smith, even with the addition of a taxi squad (4-6 players) and no clear answer yet about plans for an AHL season. Blashill says he’ll rely on practices and intrasquad scrimmages to figure some of that out, while Yzerman was quick to note that just because a player isn’t on the opening-night roster, “it doesn’t mean they can’t be a week later or two weeks later.”

On the back end, it’s a similar story, with new arrivals Troy Stecher, Jon Merrill and Marc Staal added to the mix, and Danny DeKeyser fully recovered — or so the Wings hope — from last December’s back surgery. On paper, it looks to be a more dependable group in front of a new goalie tandem, with Thomas Greiss replacing Jimmy Howard alongside Jonathan Bernier.

“But we’ll get a chance to prove whether we’re stronger,” Blashill said. “Until you prove it on a night-to-night basis … we’ll see.”

And soon, considering the Wings will play 10 games in 18 days once the puck drops in a few weeks. Just how ready the team is remains to be seen. Some players – like defenseman Filip Hronek and Filip Zadina – have been playing on loan in Europe the past couple months, while others like Larkin and Mantha have been skating in group workouts in Detroit since Thanksgiving.

“(But) you don’t know for sure how guys are gonna be, you don’t know for sure how guys are gonna mesh, you don’t know any of those things,” Blashill said. “When you have a whole bunch of new people you probably have a lot of question marks, you have a lot of unknown. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. That can be a great thing.”

So can optimism, I suppose, which is where Blashill knows he has to start if he wants to see this thing through.

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