Ex-Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill to-do list in Tampa: Teach defense, drain pools

Detroit Free Press

TAMPA, Fla. — Jon Cooper spotted Jeff Blashill talking to Detroit media and played a little air violin, poking fun at his longtime friend.

Tuesday’s game between the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena was heavy on reunions: It was Blashill’s first game as an assistant coach with the Lightning against the team he used to serve as head coach; and Derek Lalonde’s first game as head coach of the Wings against the team he used to serve as an assistant.

“We’ve had a fantastic coaching staff the last few years,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Newsy came in and now Jeff — that is a big part of an organization. It is the part that goes unnoticed — the head coach sits there in front of the camera all the time, but he’s only as good as the sum of his parts, and you need to have assistants that get it, that contribute, they work hard. To watch what Jeff brings to the table, it has been fantastic for us.”

Blashill was head coach of the Wings from 2015-2022, posting a 204-261-72 record during a time they were in the depths of a rebuild. The day after the final game last season, general manager Steve Yzerman met with Blashill in Yzerman’s office at Little Caesars Arena and let Blashill know he would not get a contract extension. On July 1, Yzerman hired Lalonde; 11 days later, Blashill landed in Lalonde’s old job.

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“When it first happened, it was a really bit awkward, probably for both of us,” Blashill said. “But we’ve been friends for a long time and we’ve had each others backs at different times when it was important and those types of friendships are bigger than our jobs and our job titles. It was weird but that doesn’t make it a barrier to us continuing to be really good friends.”

Blashill immediately moved his family to the Tampa area (one new experience that came with relocating: “Learning how to drain a pool,” Blashill said) and set about adjusting to an organization that has been to the Stanley Cup Final three straight years, winning in 2020 and 2021.

“I’ve really enjoyed it so far,” Blashill said. “New group of guys to learn from as players, a number of guys that are really smart, so you learn from those guys. The coaching staff has been great. From a quality of life standpoint, my family has enjoyed the move, they’ve all kind of settled in in their different athletics and school. We’ve enjoyed it.

“When I took the job, ultimately I wanted to add value. I wanted to go to a place I could learn and have a chance to win. We’re working on trying to be a good hockey team and have had moments where we are getting better still. Overall it’s been a good experience.”

He said he has been too busy to follow the Wings closely, but, “I’ve peeked to see how they are doing. I feel like for a guy like Tyler Bertuzzi who is out again with an injury. They look like they are playing good hockey and some good growth from some of the young players. Some good additions in place.”

Blashill never had as skilled a lineup as Yzerman gave Lalonde, strengthening the Wings at every position. But even before those additions, Yzerman had let Blashill go, citing a need for the Wings to play better team defense. Now Blashill is in Tampa, where his duties include the defense and penalty killing. Being second banana to a head coach is an adjustment after a decade in the top spot (he coached the Grand Rapids Griffins from 2012-15) is an adjustment, but Blashill is someone who focuses on experience as much as result.

“I love to coach,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of different roles in my career and I just love to coach and help the team and players get better. Getting an opportunity to do that, the way our staff works each coach has a responsibility, so I certainly have an opportunity to make an impact. In-game is different than I’ve done in a number of years, I was head coach for a long time, so that is different, but I’ve still really enjoyed it.

“I’ll always treasure the opportunity I had as the head coach of my hometown team for seven years. Life is about a journey and it had an impact on my life and my family’s life.”

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 latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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