Is it time for Steve Yzerman to fire Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill?

Detroit Free Press

None of this was supposed to happen.

The Detroit Red Wings weren’t supposed to be this good this season. Certainly not good enough to get everyone’s hopes up about returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Yet, somehow, they were. And because the Wings raised everyone’s hopes, their recent six-week skid that dashed everyone’s dreams of watching postseason hockey in Little Caesars Arena for the first time seems all the more dire and disappointing.

Then Sunday happened.

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The Wings traveled to Pittsburgh and gave up an early touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field goal in an 11-2 loss to a Steelers team masquerading as the Penguins.

As an isolated butt-whipping, that loss wouldn’t have been so bad. But it capped a month-and-a-half of putridness with a 4-11-2 record that included 9-2 and 10-7 losses and all but eliminated them from playoff contention.

So now someone has to pay. And everyone wants that someone to be coach Jeff Blashill, who’s been dangling longer than Pinocchio. Fans have been aching for Blashill’s firing for years, and every year he has been spared — the past few by general manager Steve Yzerman.

But something changed last week. When the Free Press’ Helene St. James asked Yzerman at the trade deadline about Blashill’s job security, Yzerman clutched his pearls, said it wasn’t the right time to discuss such things and gave a non-answer.

“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.”

When you consider Yzerman has offered at least nominal support for Blashill toward the end of other seasons, it’s fair to assume his silence about Blashill this year speaks volumes. It’s fair to wonder if the time is right for Yzerman to finally give everyone what they want and fire Blashill.

After Sunday’s implosion in Pittsburgh — or “collapse” as Blashill called it — the coach had 16 games left to change the narrative, starting with Wednesday’s game against the tough New York Rangers at LCA.

I went to the game, wondering what I might see and hear from fans. The Wings played well in a 5-4 overtime loss. They got down early, battled back and never lost their composure against one of the East’s top teams — the Rangers are just three points away from the conference’s No. 1 seed.

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The game seemed entirely normal. No booing Blashill when he was shown on the video screen. No homemade signs calling for his firing. No fans with paper bags over their heads — although there’s a chance Lions fans created a supply shortage last fall.

I think it’s important, if we want to be fair to Blashill, to consider everything the team has done this season, the good start as well as the poor finish. Because it’s easy to have a recency bias and just focus on the bad. But stop for a second and try to remember what your expectations were in September for this team, before the season started and before we knew what rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond would become. Were you honestly thinking this team had a realistic chance to make the playoffs? If you did, please send me your receipts, screenshots and timestamps.

Where this team really should be, where most reasonable people expected it to be, is someone near the bottom of the standings after being eliminated in early March. It should be a team that showed more offensive power and more consistency, even while losing most games.

But big embarrassing collapses, like the one in Pittsburgh, elicit emotional reactions from a fan base whose emotions are already frayed from a lengthy rebuild. I asked Blashill if he felt more pressure in Wednesday’s game to make sure his message was getting through to players. Because let’s face it, if the Wings would have suffered a second straight lopsided loss, especially at home, Yzerman might be calling a press conference today.

“I personally didn’t necessarily feel worried about the message getting through,” he said, “but we obviously needed to do a better job than we did in that game.”

Then Blashill invoked an image that the entire world hasn’t been able to get out of its head since Sunday, although he was referring to what happened in Pittsburgh, not Hollywood.

“Sometimes you’ve got to get super-slapped,” he said. “And we’ve been slapped enough, we should have learned this before this, but it felt like we got slapped so hard on Sunday that we had to really look in the mirror, all of us together.

“Is this the way we’re going to go down? What are we going to be about here? I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that the last couple days.”

It also helped that the Wings had two key veteran defensemen back who didn’t play in Pittsburgh: Marc Staal and Danny DeKeyser. Everyone hates to use injuries as an excuse, but especially for a building team like the Wings, injuries matter more than most because they didn’t have enough depth in March to overcome losing Robby Fabbri and missing unvaccinated Tyler Bertuzzi for three games in Canada.

So I asked Blashill one last question. I wanted to know if he thought the recent overwhelming criticism was fair, or if people should consider the arc of the season and what the Wings have done in total.

I was impressed with the depth of his answer and the full understanding and acceptance he showed of his situation while he explained how the players themselves have had trouble handling heightened expectations. Here’s his entire quote.

“Since the All-Star break, we were very open to criticism,” Blashill said. “We left ourself open to criticism, 100% I get it all day long. I think, starting the year, I think we did a pretty good job of putting ourselves in a position to try to grind and be in the mix as long as possible to be a playoff team. And I can just tell you the reality of human emotion is we got our expectations up, as we should. And I don’t want to (put a) damper (on) those expectations. I want those to be the expectations.

“And I do think a number of guys had a hard time coming out of that. Just emotionally we haven’t been where we were for most of the season. And so that’s the reality sometimes in sports — the reality of life, I should say. At the end of the day, we have a passionate fan base and I think the fans, you guys, we all want the same thing. We want to be in a better spot. I think we worked our way to a better spot and now we haven’t done a good enough job. But I also would say in the end you’ve got to judge over 82 games, so let’s finish these whatever, 14ish, 15 games, whatever amount of games super-strong and make sure that when we’re talking about what season we had I think you could talk about a strong finish or a really, really bad stretch after the All-Star break, and hopefully a real strong finish. That’s what we’re fighting for here.”

I hope Yzerman reads that fulsome quote carefully, because contained within it is Blashill’s contrition for a growingly rancorous fan base, as well as his plea for the patience of a more careful judgment in the calmer days after the end of the season.

I think Yzerman will give Blashill that courtesy. But the key to Blashill’s future is the private expectations Yzerman had for this team, either at the start of the season or anywhere in between, and how much credit or blame Yzerman wants to give Blashill for those meeting of falling short of those expectations. For now, only Yzerman knows that answer. Soon, we all will.

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

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