Steve Yzerman missed chance to reshape Detroit Red Wings’ rebuild by keeping Jeff Blashill

Detroit Free Press

Fourteen years ago, on the night the Detroit Red Wings were about to retire his No. 19 and hang it from the rafters of Joe Louis Arena, Steve Yzerman met with reporters and admitted something:

He’s human. All of his decisions and actions don’t always work out. Shocking, eh?

On that January night in 2007 at the GM Wintergarden, Yzerman was preparing to address a group of dignitaries that included politicians and franchise greats like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. He spoke with a group of reporters beforehand and admitted to us he was worried about his speech, even though his dressing room speeches were legendary.

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“But the speeches over time in the locker room,” he said, “you know, I made a lot of speeches and we didn’t win, too. So my record isn’t necessarily perfect.”

The Captain? Not necessarily perfect?

I thought about that night on Tuesday when Yzerman discussed his decision to retain Jeff Blashill, who will enter his seventh season as the Wings’coach with a 172-221-62 record. Not necessarily perfect. I think that’s what we have here.

As the Wings slog through at least Year 4 of their rebuild, and Year 2 under Yzerman’s general manager tenure, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope because there doesn’t seem to be much improvement that anyone without an advanced degree in hockey scouting can see.

What we can see is that the Wings, as a team, were outmatched almost every night they took the ice this season, similar to how they were outmatched almost every night they took the ice last season. The Wings haven’t won 20 games under Blashill in either of the last two seasons, with just 36 wins in that time — the same number of wins posted this year by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Sure, there were some improvements. You can almost always find some kind of statistical improvement on any team from year to year. And Yzerman relied on the oldest of old saws to defend Blashill’s performance: We played hard. Ugh.

“I feel our team is collectively very competitive,” Yzerman said. “Whether we play well or not every night is different, but we play hard. Our players play hard and I think that’s a reflection of the coaching staff, that they have the respect of the players.”

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Let me say this about Blashill: I like him because he’s generally pretty honest with his answers and doesn’t take himself too seriously. I believe he has the respect of the organization and he doesn’t play mind games with the players and the lineup. And yes, the under-talented Wings put forth a good effort this season.

We can’t forget that Blashill also hasn’t had a championship-caliber roster to work with in six seasons. Mike Babcock knew what he was doing when he skipped town just as the rebuild was about to start.

It’s also clear Blashill and Yzerman get along, and that matters. Both are low-key guys and personality fits are important.

But the reason I wasn’t crazy about Yzerman keeping Blashill? Hockey is primarily a defensive game, which means a team needs to have star offensive players. And not only was it hard to see progress from the Wings’ young offensive players, but two of their most promising young scorers struggled or regressed. Anthony Mantha was supposed to lead the team with around 20 goals, but he looked unmotivated and was traded after scoring 10 goals in 42 games. Filip Zadina was projected to score about 15 goals but finished with six.

Yzerman took the most generous view of Blashill’s development of a team that was led in points by a defenseman, Filip Hronek’s whopping 26 points. (Is it even worth mentioning that Connor McDavid led the NHL with 105 points?)

“As we are rebuilding and trying to move younger players into the lineup,” Yzerman said, “I think it is important to have a coach that has a calmness and a willingness and the patience to allow these younger players to go through some of the growing pains of playing in the NHL.”

But maybe there’s too much patience and calmness.

I like Blashill’s demeanor and his overall approach, but it’s time to show a little more urgency on the bench and throughout the organization. Hiring a new coach would have signaled that intention — and possibly appeased a restless fan base — though, admittedly, it might have elongated the rebuild even more with Yzerman having to align his rebuild vision with a new coach’s system and approach.

What we truly don’t know about Blashill is where he stands in Yzerman’s long-term plans. We don’t know the length of his contract and whether Yzerman thinks of him more as a developmental coach and a place-holder until the roster’s good enough to pursue a Stanley Cup with a splashier hire, such as Gerard Gallant or Lane Lambert.

One of the most telling parts of Yzerman’s news conference Tuesday was his willingness to take the brunt of the responsibility for the team’s ultimate success. He knows it starts with him.

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“We need to have a better team,” he said. “We need our current players to play better and it is up to the management to provide and bring in players to make us a better team.

“You need good players to win in the league, and I can change coaches year after year after year, (but) we need good players. If we don’t have good players, it’s not going to change.”

Talent tends to trump everything in pro sports. And maybe Yzerman believes if he works hard enough, he can draft and trade his way to greatness.

But coaching also plays a huge part in how a team’s talent is developed and used most effectively, and Yzerman should understand better than anyone that no matter how good and big and fast and strong any player is, he isn’t necessarily perfect and needs the right coach to help him improve.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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