What Detroit Red Wings’ coaching search reveals about GM Steve Yzerman

Detroit Free Press

As the Detroit Red Wings’ search for a new head coach enters its second month, it’s a telling sign of how general manager Steve Yzerman works — and how he has changed.

It is one of Yzerman’s biggest decisions since being named general manager in April 2019, up there in importance with his first-round draft picks. It is his third time hiring a head coach, and it already has taken longer than the first two combined.

This is Yzerman’s opportunity to pick someone he believes can push the Wings towards greater competitiveness. He can pick from multiple Stanley Cup champions — or , as he did in his previous job, bring someone new into the exclusive NHL coaching club.

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The job has been open since April 30. Yzerman texted Jeff Blashill after the Wings’ April 29 season finale and requested they meet at 11 a.m. the next day in Yzerman’s office at Little Caesars Arena. Assistant coaches Doug Houda and Jeff Salajko also were let go, leaving assistant coach Alex Tanguay in his role.

It’s the first time since 2005 the Wings’ head coaching job has been truly open. That’s the summer the Wings brought in Mike Babcock, who stayed 10 years and coached the Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup. When Babcock opted to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs in summer 2015, Blashill, coaching the franchise’s AHL team, was already the projected successor. He was promoted within a month by then-GM Ken Holland. Yzerman gave Blashill a one-year extension after season’s end in May 2021, but grew frustrated this season as a good start petered into a disappointing second half.

Yzerman wants a demanding coach who can improve the Wings’ defense. If he wants one with a Stanley Cup, options include Barry Trotz (2018, Washington Capitals), Joel Quenneville (2010, 2013 and 2015, Chicago Blackhawks), John Tortorella (2004, Tampa Bay Lightning), and Claude Julien (2011, Boston Bruins) — and Babcock, who was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in November 2019. They would all be high-priced options, in the $4-5 million per year range.

RELATED: What Steve Yzerman is looking for in new coach of Detroit Red Wings

Other possible candidates with NHL experience include Peter DeBoer, Paul Maurice, Jim Montgomery, Kirk Muller, Rick Tocchet, Dave Tippett and Alain Vigneault.

DeBoer has a local connection; he began coaching with the Detroit/Plymouth Whalers. When he left that team, he was succeeded by Mike Vellucci, a Farmington native who also has coached in the AHL and as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Other NHL assistants who could tempt Yzerman include Derek Lalonde, who was an assistant coach Yzerman’s last year with the Lightning, Marco Sturm (Los Angeles Kings) and Spencer Carberry (Maple Leafs). One name off the board already: Yzerman’s old teammate and roommate, Lane Lambert, who was promoted by the Islanders days after Trotz’s release.

Another possible candidate is Cam Abbott, a Canadian from Sarnia, Ontario, who has been coaching in the Swedish Hockey League with Rögle BK. He was defenseman Moritz Seider’s coach in 2020-21, and also has coached Wings prospect William Wallinder. (Forward Theodor Niederbach, the Wings’ second-round pick in 2020, is poised to join Rögle for the upcoming season.)

When he addressed the coaching situation May 2, Yzerman joked he hoped to have a hire by training camp. There’s still plenty of time before then, but there’s no rush. It would be nice for the next coach to be at the Wings’ table at the draft (July 7-8 in Montreal) but a coach doesn’t have input on who a team picks. A coach can, however, influence who is pursued in free agency, which begins July 13.

When Yzerman was named general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning on May 25, 2010, he introduced Guy Boucher, formerly the coach of Montreal’s AHL affiliate, as coach June 10. Yzerman, in an interview with the Free Press then, said he wanted to move quickly on Boucher because he knew Boucher had other options. When Boucher was fired March 24, 2013, Jon Cooper was promoted from the Lightning’s AHL team the following day. Again, Yzerman had a candidate in mind.

The Wings are at an interesting point — they’re not poised to win a Cup, as they were in 1993 when Scotty Bowman was hired. They need a coach who can develop young players, and instill a defensive mindset that pushes the Wings closer to once again being a playoff team.

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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