Red Wings’ Jeff Blashill focusing on season finale, not coaching future

Detroit News

If the topic of coach Jeff Blashill’s uncertain future with the Red Wings is weighing on him, he isn’t showing it.

Blashill insists it’s not on his mind, as the Wings conclude their regular season Friday in New Jersey.

But the moment the final buzzer sounds, the speculation will begin as to whether Blashill will return for an eighth season.

Blashill, 48, has a 203-261-72 record heading into Friday, a .446 winning percentage, and the Wings have missed the playoff six consecutive seasons. The Wings made the playoffs Blashill’s first season, eliminated by Tampa Bay in five games in the first round.

This season, the Wings are 31-40-10 (.444), with a second half of the season slide derailing any playoff hopes.

“No, I haven’t thought about it for one second to be honest with you,” Blashill said after Thursday’s practice, referring to the uncertainty about his future. “I’m coaching a game (Friday) and that’s all that has been my focus.”

General manager Steve Yzerman waited almost two weeks last year before announcing Blashill would return to coach the Wings. Blashill insists he hasn’t thought about this offseason and how quickly his situation will be resolved.

“I, honestly again, I haven’t thought about it for a second, to be honest with you,” Blashill said. “I’m focusing on coaching a hockey game tomorrow and trying to win a hockey game tomorrow. That’s been my total focus. That’s how it goes in coaching, you’re focused on the task at hand and that’s what I’m doing.”

When the Wings defeated the New York Islanders on Dec. 4, the Wings’ record was 13-9-3, a season-best four games over .500 and playing with increasing confidence. Talk about possibly playing meaningful games in March, and a playoff push, began to surface.

They hovered around .500, with a 22-21-6 record, until heading into a difficult seven-game stretch against powerhouse playoff teams, beginning Feb. 14 in Minnesota.

The Wings went 2-5-0 during that near three-week stretch. The next game, at Little Caesars Arena, the Wings lost 9-2 to lowly Arizona and the season began to spiral out of control.

“One of the things we were able to do is stay in the playoff race way longer than we have the last couple of years,” Blashill said. “When we kind of fell out of it, that sucked the life out of us for a little bit and it took a little bit for us to recover.

“We talked about catching Boston (for a playoff spot), and pushing to the next level, but unfortunately we weren’t able to get there. But certainly the fact we showed signs of pushing, and I don’t think we were ever totally healthy because of the (Jakub) Vrana injury (Vrana missed 56 games with shoulder surgery) all year, but when we were a fairly complete team, we could be a good hockey team.

“We’re just going to continue to grow. The number of young players moved into (important) positions, those players will continue to grow.”

The Wings had one of the most difficult schedules in the NHL the second half of the season, and that contributed to the slide. As did a leaky team defense and inconsistent goaltending, that has lowered the Wings to 31st of 32 teams with a 3.79 goals-against average (only Montreal is worse at 3.89).

“Our schedule the second half was tough for sure, strength of schedule probably played into some of that,” Blashill said. “I do think the mental affect of being in it (the playoff race) for a long time and having hope, probably the most hope we’ve had certainly the last couple of years of being a playoff team, our guys really believed we could be one, and when that became clear we weren’t, it took the life out of us a little bit.

“We didn’t play with the same extraordinary passion we played with at the beginning of the season, and for us to be good right now where we’re at, until some of those young guys continue to develop and we add some players, we have to play with that real extraordinary passion and extraordinary commitment and we lost that for a stretch.

“Again, some of that is the human element of realizing you’re out of it, so when we don’t play like that, we’re not a good enough team. When we play like that, we’re a good team.”

Defensively, the Wings weren’t as sharp as needed from the start.

“Our chances against were too high throughout the season, even when we won we won by being a good attack team and playing in the offensive zone,” Blashill said. “When we had to defend, we struggled most of the season and that caught up to us the second half. We didn’t have quite the energy, and playing against better teams, it was a combination of things.”

That stretch of seven straight games in mid-February against playoff teams was the result of a reworked schedule necessitated by COVID-19 issues around the NHL. Instead of a three-week Olympic break in February, teams had to make up postponed games and had quirky practice schedules.

The Wings had quite a few practices, not a lot of games, and it appeared to contribute to the long grind of a typical NHL schedule, and affected the Wings’ mentally.

“That February, we didn’t have a lot of games and there were a lot of different kind of things, different things we’ll probably never have to face again at that time of year,” said Blashill, alluding to the COVID-19 complications. “We practiced a good amount, a lot, and I don’t know that guys at that time of year are committed to practice as they are in September, and we needed to change that part of our mindset and unfortunately we didn’t. Our energy coming out of some of those practices wasn’t good enough leading into games and that’s a learned thing. I’m not sure we’ll go through exact scenario again, but it’s something we struggled through that February stretch, it was a tough stretch, and it lingered into March and we lost some of our confidence.

“Then the trade deadline happens, and you lose some good players (Nick Leddy, Vladislav Namestnikov, Troy Stecher), and your lineup isn’t quite what it was.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality of it and we all had to continue to grind and find ways. I’m glad after the Ottawa game in Ottawa (a 5-2 loss), we came back and did a pretty good job of increasing that sacrifice and commitment again (the Wings are 5-6-1 since).”

Red Wings at Devils

► Faceoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey

 TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM

► Outlook: The Devils (27-44-9) and Wings close out the regular season. … The Devils played Thursday in Carolina. … The Wings are 2-0-0 against New Jersey this season, including a 3-0 victory Sunday in Newark.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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