When the Red Wings were threatening new lows a few weeks ago, dropping the occasional 7-1 stinker, the coaching verdict seemed clear. Progress was minimal, and with Jeff Blashill’s contract expiring after his sixth season, change was needed.
And then some things did change. The Wings’ defense tightened and their young players competed harder and they even beat Tampa Bay three times. The Wings don’t have the worst record in the NHL — sixth-worst at 18-27-9, for the record — and with two games remaining, it’s time to ask: Have they improved enough to buy Blashill another year?
By a slim margin, I’d say yes. Not a full-throated endorsement but an acknowledgement he’s faced challenges beyond the massive rebuild, and on most nights, the Wings are competitive. Steve Yzerman hasn’t indicated anything, other than to say he’ll sit down with Blashill “very quickly” after the season, which means a resolution could come soon after the Saturday finale in Columbus.
Yzerman doesn’t make decisions based on loyalty or sentiment, and doesn’t make mandates or threats. He also doesn’t veer suddenly from a charted plan, and in two years as GM here, he has pleaded for patience. He certainly deserves it, and I bet he’s still willing to give it. It’s not a lock or an obvious call, but I’m guessing Yzerman will keep Blashill, recognizing a change at this point would be more punitive than practical.
The on-ice product remains a morass of mixed messages. Dylan Larkin assumed the captaincy and displayed leadership skills but will miss the final eight games with an upper-body injury, and wasn’t overly productive (nine goals, 23 points). Anthony Mantha finally became expendable, and Yzerman pulled off a terrific trade, acquiring Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik and first- and second-round picks from the Capitals. Vrana is younger (25 to Mantha’s 26) and has six goals in nine games.
It’s great Yzerman was able to capitalize with the Capitals on Mantha’s potential. It’s not so great that Mantha’s potential was never realized here.
But other prospects have started to rise, notably forwards Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen, former first-round picks, and defenseman Filip Hronek. And some of the early setbacks were simple misfortune. Tyler Bertuzzi was out after nine games and recently underwent back surgery. The Wings were without five regulars for two weeks because of COVID protocols and lost various key pieces to injury, including Bobby Ryan, Robby Fabbri and Jonathan Bernier.
‘Planted good seeds’
As long as we’re keeping score, the Wings already have more victories in this 56-game schedule than the 17 they posted in last season’s 71-game pandemic-halted disaster. Modest progress, yes. So a modest endorsement, yes?
“I know when I’ve done a good job and when I haven’t,” Blashill said Wednesday. “When I look at where we are today, I know we’re a better hockey team, I know our players have improved, and I believe we’ve planted good seeds for a better tomorrow for this organization by building a foundation.”
When Yzerman spoke at the trade deadline April 12, he concurred, and the Wings have played better since. Asked specifically about Zadina, Hronek and Rasmussen, he was highly optimistic.
“All three are having a real positive impact in becoming more effective players,” Yzerman said then. “It’s very encouraging. What I really am pleased about is, they’re getting in there, they’re involved and they’re competing hard. And I think they feel real good about themselves as far as their contributions. It’s a grind out there, but I’m really pleased with their development.”
Progress is measured in increments, but it’s tangible. A year ago, the Wings were the worst team in the NHL by far, with 39 points. They were last in goals-against and last in goals by staggering margins. This year, they’re 20th in goals against and 20th on the penalty-kill. On the offensive side, you’ll still need to avert your eyes — last again in goals and 30th in power-play percentage.
Other young players have made impacts, including Joe Veleno, Evgeny Svechnikov and Dennis Cholowski. And there’s growing anticipation for the arrival of defenseman Moritz Seider, Yzerman’s initial first-round pick in 2019.
Ryan, 34, was a good veteran presence but suffered a triceps tendon tear and is out for the year. He’s rehabbing and said he’d love to return to the Wings.
“I think when you look at what’s here and what’s coming, there seems to be a lot of excitement,” Ryan said Wednesday. “I think (Blashill) has a great pulse for the room, when it needs a charge and when it doesn’t, and when to step back and let the younger guys take over vocally. You can’t deny the strides some young guys have taken this year.”
You also can’t deny they’ve been halting strides. Scoring remains a major problem, and the Wings have tallied no more than one goal each of the past five games. It doesn’t help that their top four scorers a year ago — Larkin, Bertuzzi, Mantha and Fabbri — are injured or gone, but they’ve kept most games close.
Options from outside
Yzerman has flipped a significant chunk of the roster, mostly for the good. That’s his admission the issue is talent, not the coach, although Blashill eventually will have to be judged differently. He’s the third-longest-tenured coach in the NHL — behind Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper and Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice — and if a decision was made after the eight-game losing streak in January and February, he’d probably be gone.
Who knows, Yzerman might yet make a change. A year ago, he strongly endorsed Blashill at the trade deadline. This time, he said only that they’d talk. I wouldn’t parse too many words from the tight-lipped Yzerman, but he does have options.
Blashill is in the final year of his contract, making a relatively inexpensive $1.6 million. Yzerman could retain him but demand he make changes to his staff. If Yzerman wanted to hire someone familiar, former teammate and longtime friend Gerard Gallant, who took Las Vegas to the Stanley Cup finals, and Islanders assistant Lane Lambert would be candidates. But they’d cost more, and a coach as accomplished as Gallant might not be eager to jump into a rebuild.
Yzerman and Blashill have a solid relationship, with mutual understandings and timetables. Blashill is deeply imbedded in the organization, having coached in Grand Rapids for three seasons. If Yzerman is looking for a fall guy, Blashill’s record with the Wings (171-221-61), makes him a fair candidate. I just don’t think Yzerman needs a fall guy, not with this roster.
Ask yourself: Would a new coach still be around when the Wings are ready to contend in, say, three years? All decisions right now are for long-term purposes, not short-term juice. With his batch of unrestricted free agents and another hugely important draft coming up, Yzerman has more pressing concerns at the moment than his coach.