Why Saturday likely marked Jeff Blashill’s last home game coaching the Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Free Press

When Jeff Blashill was promoted to coach the Detroit Red Wings in 2015, one of the chief reasons given was that he had won at every level of hockey.

Blashill was 41 when he was introduced as Mike Babcock’s successor on June 9, 2015, two years after coaching the Grand Rapids Griffins to the AHL championship. Previously, Blashill had won a USHL championship, and, in his only season at Western Michigan, led the Broncos to the NCAA tournament and their best season in 15 years.

Winning in the NHL proved elusive.

Blashill has a 202-259-72 record behind the Wings bench near the end of his seventh season. His Wings have failed to advance to the playoffs six straight years. There have been scattered and brief “Fire Blashill” chants at home, though the ones that arose and quickly sank near the end of Saturday’s 7-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the home finale were not heard in person by general manager Steve Yzerman. He had plans to be in Germany scouting the U18 world championship.

LESSONS LEARNED: What 3 years in charge of Wings shows about Steve Yzerman’s plan

Yzerman bristled when asked about Blashill at the March 21 trade deadline, a change from the previous two trade deadlines, when he endorsed Blashill and pointed to a less than competitive roster.

This season, there were expectations the team would be better — not good enough to advance to the playoffs, but better. Rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, both Yzerman draft picks, infused fresh hope into the rebuild. The Wings were competitive most nights, and managed to stay around .500. They were 22-21-6 as late as mid-February, but as the race to make the playoffs intensified, the Wings wilted. They’ve gone 8-18-4 since Feb. 14, including embarrassments like losing 9-2 at home to the non-playoff Arizona Coyotes and an 11-2 loss at Pittsburgh.

The lack of depth has been exposed as Robby Fabbri was lost to a knee injury March 10, one game after Jakub Vrana joined the lineup after missing the first 56 games recovering from shoulder surgery. Dylan Larkin underwent season-ending surgery on Monday, and Filip Zadina will have missed the last five games because of appendicitis. Alex Nedeljkovic and Thomas Greiss both went through rough patches, and the Wings don’t have the scoring power to hide subpar goaltending.

That would be a challenge for any coach.

Blashill came to the Wings with a promising resume, but the Wings were not a promising team in 2015. Most of stars that had won four Stanley Cups between 1997-2008 were gone, and those that remained were in the twilight of their careers. The Wings made the playoffs Blashill’s first year, but on March 28, 2017, the Wings were eliminated from playoff contention, ending a historic 25-season streak. Pavel Datsyuk had left in 2016, Henrik Zetterberg retired before the 2018-19 season, and Niklas Kronwall followed suit a season later.

Winning those Cups, and attempting to sustain momentum for more, had all but emptied the farm system. Higher-ups in the organization, including ownership, knew a downturn was coming; it had been postponed by the good fortune of drafting Datsyuk in the sixth round in 1998 and Zetterberg in the seventh round in 1999.

It wasn’t until 2013 the Wings, then under the management of Ken Holland, kept their first-round pick. It wasn’t until 2017 they drafted in the top 10; it had been since 1991 they had been in such a high position. Neither the 2015 first-round selection (forward Evgeny Svechnikov, No. 19) nor the 2016 first-round pick (defenseman Dennis Cholowski, No. 20) panned out, setting back the rebuild. Michael Rasmussen (No. 9, 2017) and Zadina (No. 6, 2018) look like they’ll be 12-15 goal scorers — not the expected return on top-10 picks. It wasn’t until Yzerman’s arrival in April 2019 that the rebuild gained momentum from high-end draft picks. 

Yzerman has kept Blashill through numerous ugly losing streaks, and extended him last season, announcing his decision 10 days after the final game. Yzerman keeps his counsel private, but his reaction at the trade deadline, and the slide over the past two months, likely will lead him to decide the Wings need a fresh voice to push them towards the playoffs.

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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