You can view Jeff Blashill’s contract extension as an endorsement or a stay of execution, an indictment or an admission of guilt. That choice is yours as a fan, obviously.
But the choice that matters here belongs to Steve Yzerman. And to hear the Red Wings’ general manager talk Tuesday, after he’d made it official that Blashill would be back behind Detroit’s bench next season, it wasn’t one he wrestled with all that much.
“Was it a difficult decision, a hard decision? Not really,” Yzerman said. “I’m comfortable with it and I feel good about it. We’ll continue to work.”
And by all accounts, the working relationship here is a good one between the GM and a head coach he inherited two years ago but now can — and must — claim as his own. There’s an open and honest dialogue, both with each other and about the task at hand, one that hasn’t been easy and only gets harder from here as the Red Wings try to dig themselves out of the NHL’s cellar.
“But having said that, we all have expectations,” Yzerman added. “And we gotta continue to go in the right direction.”
So keep that in mind, too, if you’re sitting there bemoaning this decision as a step backward, or even Yzerman’s first real stumble in his two years as GM in Detroit, the city where he became an icon as a Hall of Fame player.
Just because Blashill’s staying doesn’t mean he’s here for the long haul. And just because they’re running it back doesn’t mean the runway here is endless, even though it might seem like it after six seasons of mostly diminishing returns.
You don’t have to study Yzerman’s track record long to see he’s comfortable pulling the trigger quickly, when he feels it’s necessary. He fired his first head coach in Tampa, Guy Boucher, less than two years after Boucher led the Lightning to within a game of the Stanley Cup Final. He traded away one captain (Martin St. Louis) and bought out another (Vincent Lecavalier) with the Lightning. More recently, Yzerman sent the Wings’ leading goal-scorer, Anthony Mantha, packing less than six months after signing him to a four-year contract extension.
After 20 years as a player, and another decade as a GM, Yzerman certainly understands the value of patience. And remember, Yzerman has seen this work before, hiring an unproven minor-league coach in Jon Cooper and then sticking with him even when Tampa Bay fell short of expectations at various times along the way. Yzerman had left by the time Cooper and the Lightning reaped the ultimate reward, winning the Stanley Cup last season, but the point stands: Sometimes it’s worth the wait, even if others disagree.
Of course, he also knows when it’s time to get rid of the puck. But now apparently isn’t that time in Detroit, where Yzerman understands better than anyone just how woefully short on high-end talent this roster has been the past few years.
“As an organization, we’ve been rebuilding,” Yzerman said. “It’s hard to coach a rebuilding team. …
“Ultimately, we need to have a better team. We need our current players to play better and it’s up to management to bring in players that make us a better team. You need good players to win in the league. I can change coaches year after year after year. But we need good players, and if we don’t have good players it’s not going to change.”
The hope is that’ll change for Blashill in another year or two, aided by a steady influx of young talent. Yzerman’s first draft pick, Moritz Seider, was named the top defenseman in the Swedish Hockey League on Tuesday, and he’s a lock to make the Red Wings roster in the fall. Joe Veleno, a 2018 first-rounder, should be as well after a brief cameo this season. Another member of that draft class, Jonatan Berggren, might not be far behind. And last year’s first-round pick, Lucas Raymond, should arrive in 2022, though even he’ll get a look in training camp in September.
“We’re starting to see some of those future assets turn into players,” Yzerman said, “and that is gonna make our coaching staff’s job a little bit easier.”
Or harder, depending on how you look at it. Because while Blashill’s performance review was based more on the intangibles than the record this spring, that won’t necessarily be the case a year or two from now, or whenever the time comes. Yzerman declined to divulge the details of Blashill’s new deal Tuesday, but I’m not sure that really matters. Neither does the coach, for that matter.
Yzerman said he didn’t feel the need to gauge — or engage — the coaching candidates on the market this spring, including ex-teammates Gerard Gallant and Lane Lambert. But who’s to say he won’t be ready to do that at a later date?
“In this business, contract or no contract, you never know when your last day is gonna be with a particular team,” Blashill said. “That’s the reality of this business. I’ve learned not to spend really any time worrying about that.”
Yzerman spent much of his time Tuesday talking at length about the process, not the results, as he was asked in various ways to explain why he’s sticking with Blashill, whose teams won just 36 of 127 games the last two seasons.
“I feel our team is collectively very competitive,” Yzerman said. “Whether we play well or not every night is different, but we play hard. I think our players play hard, and I think that’s a reflection of the coaching staff. The coaching staff has the respect of the players. And that was important.”
So, too, was the progress the team made defensively this season, and the way the Wings played over the final two months (29 points in the last 27 games), in spite of injuries to key players.
It’s also worth noting that one of the fans’ biggest gripes with Blashill — the way he has handled some of the younger players — is one they should probably take up with Yzerman. He’ll point to the growth in the overall games of Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina we saw this winter, for example.
“Jeff has really worked with me with transitioning our young players into the lineup, being patient with them,” the GM said. “Not handing them positions or ice time, really forcing them to earn it and guiding them along and being firm yet patient with our young guys.”
But how long does the patience last here? That’s the question the fans will be asking again soon, if not immediately, if the record doesn’t improve next season and the growth isn’t a bit more obvious, particularly in the opponents’ net.
The Wings still ranked last in the league in goals, 28th in scoring-chance percentage and 27th in goal differential. And their anemic power play converted on just 11.4% of opportunities, which ranks as one of the 10 worst outputs in league history.
That partly explains why Dan Bylsma won’t return as an assistant, and Blashill said he’ll work with Yzerman to find an offensive-minded “tactician” to replace him on his staff. And it may explain some of the moves we’ll see from the GM this summer as he decides what to do with Detroit’s long list of pending free agents and the most salary-cap space of any team in the league.
But as they work toward “a better tomorrow,” as Blashill puts it, there’s undoubtedly a point where today’s standards will no longer apply.
“I think there’s progress,” Yzerman said. “But … there’s so much work to be done.”