Through two seasons of dissecting games, discussing personnel, dealing with drudgery and frustration and the knowledge that there’s no quick end to a rebuild, Jeff Blashill kept making the same impression on Steve Yzerman.
His levelheaded approach and his determination to focus on long-term success played a key role in why Yzerman extended Blashill’s tenure into a seventh season as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings haven’t made the playoffs since Blashill’s first season, in 2016, but Yzerman isn’t one to institute change for the sake of change.
“As an organization we’ve been rebuilding and it’s hard to coach a rebuilding team,” Yzerman said Tuesday. “I think it’s important to have a coach that has a calmness and patience and the willingness to allow these younger players to go through some of the growing pains of playing in the NHL.
“Jeff Blashill is himself. He’s not trying to be somebody else. I like the fact he’s not trying to impress me or you, he just does his job. Our players appreciate the fact he has a tremendous work ethic, that he genuinely cares about the players. And I know he cares about the players because he and I talk virtually after every game, if not after the game, the next day. Depending on the results of the game, our feelings can vary. He takes great care in the players and in helping them.”
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Yzerman would not reveal the length of the contract, but something along the lines of a one-year deal with a team option for a second year would fit with Yzerman’s history, two years into his tenure, of largely short-term commitments.
It speaks to Yzerman’s own patience — and the knowledge of how tough rebuilds are that he gained as a player, waiting 14 years to win his first Stanley Cup — that he is extending a coach coming off five consecutive losing seasons.
“We’ve got a long way to go and we recognize that,” Yzerman said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in all areas. But I watch our team play and I like the competitive fire that our team shows. They work hard, they compete hard. I see progress being made. Specifically I’m watching some of our younger players, and our veterans — they play hard, they compete hard.”
The two met shortly after the Wings finished the 2020-21 season 19-27-10 on May 8, and continued their conversation regarding Blashill’s future over several days.
“There’s very little time I feel I’m in the dark about what Steve is thinking,” Blashill said. “That’s why I enjoy working with him and for him. I know on a regular basis what he is thinking and vice versa, he knows what I’m thinking.”
Blashill, 47, is 172-221-62 since being promoted in 2015. He was hired into the organization in 2011 as an assistant coach to Mike Babcock.
“To have had the opportunity to coach this team for six years and now in my seventh year, I take that very seriously and I’m very grateful for that,” Blashill said. “I understand what comes with coaching, that the finger gets pointed at the coach a lot. That’s fine. One thing you learn in coaching is to have very, very thick skin and to stay off social media. It took me a while to learn the second part, and I’ve grown through trials and tribulations to have thick skin.
“I’ve been a Red Wing for a long time and in this seat for a long time. I love being a Red Wing. I love being part of this organization, and I want to continue to see this team get to a better tomorrow. We’ve been through tough times and to get a chance to continue to lead this team, I’ve very grateful for it and I’m very excited.”
Blashill’s roughly $1.6 million salary is less than what it would cost to bring in a more experienced NHL coach, and that’s not an insignificant factor given the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on revenue. But ultimately Blashill’s extension came down to Yzerman being pleased with the progress he has seen in the Wings’ 26-and-under contingent, key to driving the rebuild forward — it’s a group that includes Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri, Filip Hronek, Filip Zadina, Michael Rasmussen, and, since April’s the trade deadline, Jakub Vrana.
“We have a clear expectation of what things are,” Yzerman said. “Jeff understands what I’m trying to do and is willing to work with me on that.
“I’m very comfortable and I think it’s the right thing to do to keep Jeff on as coach. We need to have a better team. We need our current players to play better and it’s up to management to provide 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 — if we don’t have good players, it’s not going to change.”
Next season will bring defenseman Moritz Seider, who has shown significant growth since Yzerman drafted him at No. 6 overall in 2019. Maybe forward Lucas Raymond, the fourth overall pick in 2020, is ready to make the jump to the NHL. Yzerman will either sign some of his own unrestricted free agents — a group that includes forwards Bobby Ryan and Sam Gagner, defenseman Marc Staal and goaltender Jonathan Bernier — or mine the free agent market to patch the lineup. He’ll make a trade for a marquee player if such a scenario develops, but the Wings aren’t really in a position to give up assets, which such blockbusters usually require.
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That will be worked out in the months ahead. And it will involve many more discussions with Blashill, who over the past two years has impressed upon Yzerman how he’s the right guy to continue coaching the rebuild.
“He’s willing to listen, willing to learn,” Yzerman said. “He doesn’t have a big enough ego that he’s not going to listen to his staff, to his players — gosh, to me, for that matter. He’s learning. He’s getting more experienced and better. He’s got some patience, not just with our kids but with our veterans. As we’re rebuilding, you have to have some patience, you have to be levelheaded, because I know, you all get frustrated, we all get frustrated. We can drive ourselves crazy if we get overly emotional, drive our team and our players, everyone, crazy. I like the level-headedness, his methodical approach to things.”
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.