They’re making it too easy now.
And that’s the hard part for Jeff Blashill when it comes to his future as the Red Wings’ head coach.
Yet even if it feels like he’s fighting a losing battle on multiple fronts now, with another embarrassing defeat on everyone’s mind and a fanbase itching for something different near the end of the coach’s seventh season in Detroit, Blashill insists the message won’t change. It can’t change, he says. Not if this franchise is going to get through this tedious rebuild and back to the playoffs, where the Red Wings once made a happy home.
So there he was Tuesday, as his team returned to practice following Sunday’s ridiculous 11-2 loss at Pittsburgh, barking out instructions on the ice, diagramming defensive coverages on a whiteboard by the bench, and blowing the whistle more than once to have his players run a drill back to get it right.
The prospects have changed for this season, no doubt. But the process won’t, apparently.
“It’s not easy, and there’s a delicate balance to what we do when you’re in these spots,” Blashill said. “You have to be able to fight frustration. Certainly (Monday) we were all frustrated, embarrassed, disappointed — all those emotions. But you really gotta work toward solutions, otherwise you’re gonna head nowhere. You can’t let it be OK.”
It’s not OK, clearly, the way his team has played of late. And whatever underlying reasons there are for the Red Wings’ recent ice follies — losing 12 of their last 15 games (3-10-2), and all too routinely in alarming fashion — it’s more than fair to wonder if Blashill’s time is almost up in Detroit.
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It should be, quite frankly. No NHL head coach has ever survived six consecutive losing seasons with one team to coach a seventh. But Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman, who gave Blashill another contract extension last spring, is the one who gets to decide that. And he declined to weigh in on the coach’s future last week when he met with the media to talk about the Wings’ trade-deadline moves.
“This has been an up and down year for us,” Yzerman said. “We’ve had a lot of progress. The last six weeks of the season have been disappointing for all of us. Jeff and I will sit down at some point and talk about our team and where we’re going with our team and what we need to do. But I don’t think this is the time to really discuss our coaching staff or our coach.”
Have things changed?
Two years ago at the deadline, though, the GM did take the time to offer an endorsement of Blashill’s work, acknowledging Detroit’s roster limitations and saying it was “unfair” to judge him on the team’s record. So take that for what it’s worth, I suppose.
But last spring, in announcing Blashill would be back for the 2021-22 season, Yzerman talked at length about the coach’s passion and preparedness, his “great work ethic” and his “attention to detail.” And none of those things has gone missing in the interim. Some of the Wings’ veteran leaders, including captain Dylan Larkin, have said as much in the wake of this latest on-ice debacle.
“Blash has done a great job of keeping us prepared and engaged and trying to focus on ways to help us improve,” forward Sam Gagner, who’s in his 15th NHL season, said Tuesday after practice. “We need to do a better job as players of fighting through things.”
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Can they? Will they? And if not, then what? Those are the questions that’ll be answered over the next month, with 16 games remaining in a season that seems to have gone off the rails.
Detroit has allowed seven goals or more in four of those dozen losses since mid-February, seven times in their last 24 games and nine times all season. Sunday’s march of the Penguins to the visitors’ net marked the first time an NHL team had allowed 11 goals in a game since 2003, pre-dating the salary-cap era.
And Detroit’s team goals-against average (3.80) is now the worst in the league, worse than that historically-bad 2019-20 Wings team (3.73), and better than only the expansion Atlanta Thrashers (3.82) in the last quarter-century.
So, yeah, this is bad, and as Larkin fumed after Sunday’s loss, if the Wings don’t get their act together, “It’s gonna get worse.” The goaltending has run hot and cold, but lately it’s been too much of the latter. The left side of the defensive pairings this past weekend was cringeworthy, both on paper and on the ice. And the forward corps has gotten top-heavy again, a problem exacerbated over the last month by trade and injury.
Most of those things are largely out of Blashill’s control, obviously. And that has been the case for much of his tenure behind the Wings’ bench, as an aging roster was stripped down and sold for parts while the farm system slowly began producing future NHLers.
But at the end of last season, Blashill talked about the “good foundation laid” and the chance to build off it. And while no one should have been under the illusion this was a playoff team, the Wings might’ve fooled themselves — and some of their fans — with a solid start last fall, sparked by the rookie additions of Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. The Wings’ offense found some life and the team found ways to win one-goal games – enough so that Detroit was technically holding down a wild-card playoff spot in early December.
But the wheels have come off since then, as defensive cracks turned into massive faults, which inevitably leads to a head coach getting blamed.
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Blashill knows how this works. As bad as Sunday’s loss looked — go back and watch Filip Zadina lose his stick and the puck to hand the Penguins their 11th goal late in the third period — the 9-2 loss at home to cellar-dwelling Arizona a few weeks ago might’ve been uglier. And fair or not, it all reflects poorly on the head coach.
But so will this finishing stretch, perhaps. Which is the message Blashill was busy delivering to his team Tuesday, telling them, “Let’s climb our way out of this thing.”
“For a large part of the season we were writing a story about ourselves that we were proud of,” he said. “We were pushing towards competing for a playoff spot. I think we were pushing towards a better tomorrow.
“And I think for the last bit we’ve taken a giant step backward in that. But we have a good chunk of games left, so our story as a team and as individuals hasn’t been written yet. It’s never written until it’s over.”
Maybe not, but this final chapter better be a doozy.