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Jeff Blashill's Challenge as the Red Wings' New Head Coach

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This is going to be one of the longest summers of recent memory for the Red Wings, not just because their season ended much sooner than we all wanted it to, but because the events that have gone down since their game seven loss to Tampa Bay has most of us looking forward to seeing how the Wings are going to look next year more than we have been. We don't know if the team is going to be better, but I'm anxious to learn how much different they'll be.

Don't get me wrong, looking forward to next season happens every summer. For all the reasons to become jaded, pessimistic and downright cranky in February, I wouldn't keep doing this if the hot months didn't bring the excitement of another ride on the regular season roller coaster in October. Since I don't like to wait, I enlisted the help of Michelle to help look into some of the questions we have for the Wings going forward to see how Jeff Blashill's Griffins have done things.

Youth vs. Veteran

The Red Wings need to improve. That improvement has to come from the growth of their prospects. The veterans will do what they do, but will the kids get their chance to shine?

How Babcock did it:
One of the enduring Mike Babcock quotes over the last few seasons has been "The tie goes to the veteran."  Babcock softened up on that a lot in the most-recent season, having a waiver-exempt Tomas Jurco on the team and in the lineup for a majority of the season, but he was pretty stubborn about having a set plan for youngsters that they either fit into or washed out of.

How Blashill does it:

Blashill does a good job of making his lineup decisions based on who gives the team the best chance to win, regardless of their age or experience. That being said, there are also a couple recent examples where he's chosen to keep veterans in the lineup when, based on my knowledge, I would have preferred to have a prospect in their place. It's no doubt sometime tough to determine what's more valuable, veteran experience and knowledge, or experience a younger player will gain by making mistakes and hopefully learning from them.

Probably the most controversial healthy scratch decision he's made over the last couple years is scratching Ryan Sproul for 21 games this season (including 11 in the playoffs) while keeping Brennan Evans in the lineup in his place. Sproul wasn't impressing anyone with his play before he was a healthy scratch and Blash had extra defensemen on his hands. Mattias Backman was also a frequent healthy scratch before heading back to the SHL and then being traded to Dallas in the Erik Cole trade. I would have liked to see Sproul scratched for fewer games, but I also can't completely fault Blash for having him near the top of the healthy scratch list based on his on ice performance. Critics of his personnel choices will point to those two examples and say that Blashill favors veterans over youth, but those are marginal "wrong" decisions.

Veterans like Nathan Paetsch, Kevin Porter, and Andy Miele played every game they were healthy, but it's because they were key pieces to the team's success and very productive players, not because they were vets. Just look at all the rookies who were regulars in the lineup and were given the opportunity to earn significant roles on the team just this year alone. Rookies like Mark Zengerle, Andreas Athanasiou, Marek Tvrdon, Scott Czarnowczan, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Zach Nastasiuk were all used by Blashill in key roles on the team while veteran Chris Bruton was a healthy scratch for almost half the season. If Blash had been looking for an excuse to scratch a rookie and play a veteran, he would have had plenty of opportunity with Anthony Mantha, yet Manthony played every game he was healthy for and Blashill continually worked to help Mantha improve and played him in the best position to succeed.

Blashill embraces the youth and truly enjoys helping them grow and develop but it's also his job to win games and try to win championships and he makes his lineup decisions based upon who he things is going to help achieve those goals the most. I trust him to continue to coach that way in the NHL, with a balance between veterans who bring value to the team and are needed, and playing the younger guys in roles that help them succeed.

The Goalie Issue

The Wings have two very good goalies, but the higher-paid one lost his starting job. Throughout this season, Detroit will need to balance having two guys who want to be the starter trying to get the most out of each of them.

How Babcock did it:
Babs isn't slow to pull a goalie he doesn't feel he can rely on. He pulled Hasek, replaced Osgood, and made Jimmy Howard the backup in favor of people he thought could do it better. That said, he's allowed a clearly struggling Jimmy Howard a ton of leeway before getting to this point.

How Blashill does it:
This is an interesting question because we have some conflicting evidence to look at. Petr Mrazek only made it a few games in Toledo his rookie season before being called up to the Griffins, and as soon as he got to GR there was no question he was the starter. Mrazek was by far the better goalie, everyone knew it, and Blashill played him like the deserving starter. When Petr was called up to the Wings, McCollum would get to start but as soon as Mrazek came back down, there was no question he was going to pick up where he left off, all is right in the world. However once Mrazek was called up to Detroit this year and it was clear he was there for the long haul, I think he relied too much on McCollum instead of utilizing Jared Coreau more.

McCollum is an adequate goalie at best, and I believe the Griffins would have at least made it to the Calder Cup Finals had it not been for the fact that they lost the goalie battle at every turn, and Blashill chose to play McCollum through to the bitterly disappointing end. I think he chose to stay the course with McCollum despite all his soft goals and inconsistency because going with a rookie in net who has limited experience would have been a risk as well, and he chose to go with the devil he knew. It's a risk I wish he would have taken, but on the other hand, Blash did play Coreau in game 2 against the Marlies in the first round and he didn't fare much better than McCollum had results wise, so maybe he genuinely felt that McCollum was the "better" goalie.

With both Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek in Detroit it's a different situation because he knows he has two NHL goalies who are both very good. I think he'll do a good job of playing both goalies and coaching them to succeed, while also keeping the balance of playing whichever one is more deserving and helps the team the most. As a former goalie himself, Blashill understands the position and mentality of a goalie more than most coaches do and I firmly believe it will help him get the most from whoever his goalies are.

The Defense

A group of guys without a top pair, Detroit needs to get the puck out of their own zone more efficiently while maintaining the tight-checking scheme that severely limited opposition chances.

How Babcock did it:
Babcock sacrificed offensive zone mobility for his defenders to do more work slowing down transition before it reached the center line. He also had the defense focus on staying in position in the zone to keep the puck to the outside rather than chasing big hits or pinch-points. The defense struggled the most with dumped-in pucks as they rarely won races against forecheckers cleanly enough to start the transition immediately. He also generally set up a stay-at-home guy with more of a puck-mover type. The more-mobile "puck-mover" type was tasked with getting to those dump-ins while the more physical defenseman of the two was tasked with clearing traffic in front of the net.

How Blashill does  it:
One of the things I really love about the systems Blashill ran in Grand Rapids is how he used his defensemen, especially in the offensive zone. In the offensive zone the defensemen would often take advantage of opportunities to pinch in, carry the puck to the net, get to open areas for scoring chances, or even drive the net and create a screen, all because as soon as they would move up, a forward would cycle smoothly into the defenseman's spot neat the point and cover for him. The defensemen didn't have to hesitate or wonder if it was too risky to take their chance, because they knew the forward would cover for them, and while we don't have fancy stats available to back it up, I'm confident in saying that a significant number of Corsi events for the Griffins resulted from this system of play.

If the Griffins turned the puck over in the offensive zone and there's a chance one of the defensemen could get to it, he could jump up and try to recover possession while the other defenseman and the forward designated to stay lower (F3) would be ready in case the puck carriers got past the pinching defenseman. If neither defenseman though he could get to the puck and an opposing player got it right away and headed out of their zone, there would be one defenseman who would focus on the puck carrier while the second one would frequently hang back a little bit to eliminate the possibility for a pass or an odd man rush.

Blashill likes to use the offensive -defensive paring system which also worked out to have at least one good/ fast skater on each pairing and that's the guy most responsibly for getting back first to defend. There was a smooth, seamless flow between the forwards and defensemen in the offensive zone and I'd really like to see more of that defensive style used on the Wings. In the Griffins zone it was typically the "defensive" member of the pair who was tasked with clearing bodies away from the crease, so this season it was largely Brennan Evans, Brian Lashoff, and Alexey Marchenko while Xavier Ouellet/Ryan Sproul, Nick Jensen, and Nathan Paetsch were their respective offensive partners. The Griffins system worked because they had mobile, puck moving defensemen, a designated forward to help cover defensively, and the offense and defense worked together seamlessly to cover for each other which helped keep the puck moving in the right direction. I hope a lot of Blash's defensive system and tactics are utilized in Detroit to get more productivity from the D corps.

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As you see, there's a reason a lot of people say that things aren't expected to change too much in Detroit. Jeff Blashill is very similar to Mike Babcock in a lot of ways. What we're all hoping to see is him being different in the important ways. I can't wait for next season.