Detroit Red Wings mailbag: What Steve Yzerman sees in coach Jeff Blashill

Detroit Free Press

Steve Yzerman has made significant changes in the nearly three years he has been general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, overhauling the goaltending, the defenseman corps and the forward group to fashion a more competitive product than the one he inherited.

The one notable area where Yzerman has not made a change: head coach. Yzerman’s relationship with Jeff Blashill prompted a letter from reader Terrance K., who wondered about Yzerman’s “decision to retain Blashill when so many were urging him to be fired” and how this decision reflects on “this stage of the exciting rebuild.”

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It’s important to remember what happened in April 2019: On April 2, Blashill received a two-year extension from then-general manager Ken Holland. On April 19, Holland stepped aside and Yzerman was named GM. Yzerman had announced before the 2018-19 season that he was taking a step back from the GM role in what was the last year of his contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Wings knew that opened the door for Yzerman to come home — and so he did, with the announcement coming three days after the Lightning were ousted in the playoffs.

At his introductory news conference, Yzerman endorsed the extension, saying he was looking forward to getting to know Blashill better. After the Wings finished Yzerman’s first season (2019-20) with an NHL-worst 17-49-5 record, Yzerman pointed to a weak roster. At the end of the 2020-21 season, Yzerman extended Blashill’s contract for another year.

WHAT HE SAID THEN: Why Yzerman thinks Blashill can get Wings ‘to a better tomorrow’

In regards to “so many were urging him to be fired,” the key is to look at the growth from within. Regardless of how the Wings have fared in the standings, Yzerman would have made a coaching change if he didn’t like the job Blashill was doing with the young players, the core of the rebuild. That was at the core of Yzerman’s approval of Blashill in 2019, when Yzerman talked about having watched the young players evolve. Their continued development into complete players — into winning players — is vital to Yzerman’s plan.

The expectations for Blashill have increased as the roster has improved. The Wings are a better team this season, invigorated by the additions of rookies Moritz Seider, Lucas Raymond and Alex Nedeljkovic. That needed to be reflected in the win-loss category, and it has. The Wings’ points percentage has  been at or slightly above .500 most of the season, and their growth has shown in their response to bad games. When they have messed up, as they did Jan. 26 in their 8-5 loss to the Blackhawks on Wednesday, the Wings have rebounded quickly, as they did Friday, winning 3-2 in a shootout at Pittsburgh. Yzerman watched the game from the press box at PPG Paints Arena, seeing first-hand how the Wings responded.

After the game, Blashill said there had been a “tough meeting” Thursday to talk about the situation.

“Our guys want to win,” he said. “I do 100% believe that. They want to play the right way. It’s a process, at times, to learn how to do that, and they are working towards it. The character of our group I think is excellent. We just have to keep finding ways to play the right way on a consistent basis.

Blashill has been the Wings’ head coach since 2015-16, his arrival coming as the franchise was headed for a downswing after 25 consecutive playoff berths. (The Wings made the playoffs in his first season; they have not made it since.) He is the NHL’s second-longest tenured coach, trailing only the Lightning’s Jon Cooper (who was hired in Tampa Bay by Yzerman). Saturday’s contest against the Leafs marked Blashill’s 500th game.

Yzerman knows well the growing pains of turning a team into a contender — and from there, into a champion. He waited 14 years from being drafted in 1983 until winning the Stanley Cup in 1997 (and that was with the amazing 1989 draft that yielded future first-ballot Hockey Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov). The Wings probably aren’t a playoff team this season, but it reflects well on Blashill that they are fighting for a wild-card spot, rather than the best odds in the draft lottery. That’s especially true considering forward Jakub Vrana has been out since training camp with a shoulder injury; the Wings had expected him to be a major part of their offense. (He could be back in February). Even if the Wings sink in the standings in the second half as the playoff race intensifies, they’ve shown they have grown as a team.

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When the Wings do finally return to the playoffs, Yzerman will have to decide if Blashill is the right guy to continue that journey. Yzerman went through it as a player: Frustrated with the Wings coming up short in the playoffs, then-owner Mike Ilitch brought in Stanley Cup-champion Scotty Bowman to coach the Wings in 1993.

For now, Yzerman is likely to do what he did last year: Wait till the season ends, and then decide Blashill’s future within one to two weeks.

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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