Detroit Red Wings mailbag: Why Steve Yzerman likely won’t fire Jeff Blashill during season

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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When the Detroit Red Wings started the 2021 season, the hope was the team would look more competitive than last season, that it would not again finish in last place.

That hope was intact after the first week, but took a hit during the second week when the Wings went winless on the road. That’s given rise to a fresh round of questions regarding coach Jeff Blashill’s job security, which is the topic of this mailbag.

Reader Marc R. wrote to ask: “When does Steve Yzerman fire Blashill? How long will he let him coach this team? He keeps changing the lines around. Guys need to build chemistry.”

I’ll get the second part of the question out of the way first. The Wings have had five players — forwards Filip Zadina, Robby Fabbri, Sam Gagner and Adam Erne, and defenseman Jon Merrill — in COVID-19 protocol since Jan. 22. Fabbri and Zadina were on the second line, and Gagner and Erne were on the third or fourth lines. Blashill kept Dylan Larkin with Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi when it was just Fabbri who was missing from the top six, but once Zadina also was unavailable, it became necessary to make adjustments.

Bobby Ryan has not looked as effective since losing Fabbri and Zadina as linemates. Fabbri may be able to play this coming week, but Zadina’s minimum 14-day stay on the list is not up until Feb. 5, at which time the Wings are on the road again. Gagner and Merrill are on the same timeline as Zadina.

On to the meaty part of the question: Will Yzerman fire Blashill this season?

Let’s examine the situation from a few angles.

Since being named general manager in April 2019, Yzerman has shown himself to be methodical, patient — and supportive of Blashill. At the conclusion of last season, when the Wings went 17-49-5, Yzerman fingered the lineup rather than the coaching. The Wings were decimated by injuries — most notably Anthony Mantha was limited to 43 games — and had numerous players on the roster who were on their last legs in the league. Eight players from last season’s team are no longer playing in the NHL, including Justin Abdelkader, Jimmy Howard, Mike Green, Trevor Daley and Brendan Perlini.

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Yzerman sought to improve the Wings in the offseason, bringing in forwards Ryan and Vladislav Namestnikov, defensemen Marc Staal, Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill and goaltender Thomas Greiss. They are stop-gap players, but added depth to a depleted team. When the season began, it looked like the Wings had two scoring lines in Bertuzzi-Larkin-Mantha and Zadina–Fabbri–Ryan. Now that’s been sapped by the pandemic. On top of that, Mantha had just one goal among four points and a minus-10 rating after eight games.

Blashill doesn’t have much in the way of options with so many players sidelined.

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Another factor to consider is the fiscal side of things. The Wings are losing money because of the pandemic, playing before only a few hundred people (many of whom are family or friends of team personnel, and not ticket buyers) at Little Caesars Arena. Blashill makes $1.6 million, on the lower end for NHL coaches. If Yzerman were to release Blashill and, for example, turn the bench over to assistant coach Dan Bylsma for the rest of the season, Bylsma would require a raise. Even if it it’s $250,000, that’s not an insignificant sum when revenue has taken such a hit. If Yzerman chooses, for example, to bring in his longtime friend Gerard Gallant, he’s a former NHL head coach who would command considerably north of Blashill’s salary. And that’s presuming Gallant, or any higher-profile candidate, wants to coach the Wings. They are in a rebuild, and they’re not coming out of it in the near future.

And then there’s the schedule. After this weekend, the Wings will have played 10 games. That’s almost 20% of the pandemic-shortened 56-game slate. Nobody outside the locker room expected the Wings to make the playoffs when the season began. Again, the hope was they’d be more competitive than last season, and they were until they lost five players to pandemic protocol.

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Blashill had just been signed to a two-year extension a couple weeks before Yzerman was named GM. Yzerman could have made a change last season, or last summer. Clearly, he has been satisfied with how Blashill has developed players who are key to the rebuild such as Larkin, Bertuzzi and defenseman Filip Hronek.

Anything can happen, but those are reasons why it’s unlikely Yzerman makes a coaching change this season.

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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