Detroit — By the end, Jeff Blashill had no chance. And Steve Yzerman had no choice.
Not much more analysis required, frankly. The Red Wings regressed in too many areas, and Blashill had been here too long to think anything would change. So Yzerman made the obvious move Saturday, dismissing Blashill after seven seasons as coach, and it should signal a new mood.
It’s time for Yzerman to show a little impatience in this rebuild.
The focus shifts to the GM, who still must dramatically upgrade the roster, and now will hire his first coach in his third season here. Islanders assistant Lane Lambert, who has longtime ties to Yzerman, will be considered a top candidate. He played with Yzerman his rookie season in Detroit and has worked four years under the Islanders’ respected Barry Trotz. Several veteran coaches are available — Paul Maurice, Dave Tippett, Rick Tocchet — and assistant Alex Tanguay was retained from the Wings’ current staff. There also are plenty of candidates in the minor leagues and overseas.
Yzerman has his biggest opportunity yet to put his stamp on this team, and the new coach is only part of it. You hope he ramps up the offseason aggressiveness, in free agency and the trade market. When you fire the coach, you alter expectations, in addition to ramifications.
Blashill posted six straight losing seasons and a 204-261-72 overall record, but that wasn’t even the major issue. It was the staggering rate of regression in the second half of this season — 10-19-4 down the stretch. The Wings completely collapsed defensively, losing by scores of 11-2, 9-2, 7-2 and the embarrassing 10-7 pond hockey disaster against Toronto.
Yzerman will speak Monday, and I’m sure he’ll say it wasn’t easy to dismiss someone he liked enough to give an extension last year. But there’s no debating it had to happen. This isn’t about pinning blame; it’s about raising the standards of what’s acceptable.
Blashill, 48, was a good organization guy who won in the minor leagues and took over a Wings team at the start of a massive rebuild. He was the second-longest-tenured coach in the NHL (behind Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper), afforded plenty of patience, and he handled the turbulence with professional calm.
Will the next coach be expected to turn things around instantly? Not realistically. The Wings will have another top draft pick and still sorely lack high-end talent. But the dressing room needs a new voice and new ideas, and yes, quite a few new players.
The defense let down the goaltenders and vice versa, which made it hard to tell if Alex Nedeljkovic, a key acquisition, is an asset or an issue going forward. The Wings finished with a 3.78 goals-against average, second-worst in the league, and allowed their most goals in 32 years.
That 10-7 loss to the Maple Leafs in February was one of about a half-dozen low points. The Wings trailed, 7-2, and played not a shred of defense, and Blashill called the late rally “fool’s gold.”
“We lost every puck race, every puck battle, every competition battle,” Blashill said then. “If you lose those types of battles, I don’t care what happens; you’re going to get scored on.”
Blashill always was honest, no matter how painfully redundant it got. He contained whatever anger he felt, but perhaps the next coach shouldn’t be so restrained. The Wings played listlessly and sloppily way too often, and diminished motivation often falls on the coach.
You could simply say they played down to their depleted talent level, and you’d be partly right. The final record — 32-40-10 — was eighth-worst in the league, about what you’d expect from a roster loaded with youngsters and low on good, experienced players. Blashill accomplished part of his task, quickly integrating prized rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond. There wasn’t enough evidence to suggest he could take the next step, and it was past time for a change.
The Wings have a workable foundation, thanks to Yzerman’s first two No. 1 picks, Seider and Raymond, who were among the top rookies in the league. Dylan Larkin improved markedly and had 31 goals before missing the final two weeks after core-muscle surgery. Tyler Bertuzzi scored 30 goals despite missing 14 games partly due to COVID restrictions. Others — Jakub Vrana, Robby Fabbri, Pius Suter, Sam Gagner, Filip Hronek — look capable of being suitable pieces.
The first half of the season, when the Wings played respectably — 22-21-6 — actually proved to be the beginning of the end. Once they flashed competence, a relapse to awfulness wasn’t acceptable. At the trade deadline, the Wings were mostly quiet, but Yzerman privately (and a bit publicly) had to be fuming.
“It’s been an up and down year for us,” he said then. “We’ve had a lot of progress, but the last six weeks have been disappointing for all of us.”
When a rebuild hits the disappointment stage, it’s a sign that expectations have risen, and a signal for change. This was supposed to be the intermediary season, when the Wings blended promising youth with savvy veterans. But Yzerman kept churning the roster looking for unpolished pieces, and that certainly contributed to the second-half collapse.
Blashill guided the Wings through the muddiest terrain, and this step seemed an inevitable part of the plan. Yzerman would figure out what he has, what he can work with, what he needs to upgrade. Blashill had his shot, like many players shuttled in and out of town, and now Yzerman must ratchet it from here.