So far in our season previews, we've covered the forwards, the offense, the defense, and we've started in on the defensive pairings. Today we're going to go with the X-Factor for the season. Perhaps one of the biggest questions for Detroit is how big of an impact will the coaching change have on the team.
The New Locker Room Generals
When Mike Babcock packed up for Toronto, he took assistants Jim Hiller and Andrew Brewer with him, as well as strength & conditioning coach Pete Renzetti. The only full-time coaches left behind in the purge were assistant coach Tony Granato and goaltending coach Jim Bedard.
In the gaps, the Red Wings filled their head coaching vacancy with Jeff Blashill, a one-year assistant under Babcock in 2011-12 who spent the last three years coaching the Grand Rapids Griffins. In Blashill's place, the Griffins landed Todd Nelson, who was previously in the Edmonton organization. In Hiller's place, Blashill brought Pat Ferschweiler from Grand Rapids to be his second assistant coach. Ferschweiler was with Blashill back in his Western Michigan days as well. David Noel-Bernier will serve as the Wings' video coach while Mike Kadar takes over for strength and conditioning.
In addition to Granato and Ferschweiler, Chris Chelios has been named as a third assistant, but won't be behind the bench for every game due to other duties with the Red Wings and with USA Hockey.
The Assistants' Duties
From what we've been told, the Wings will continue to have one assistant essentially in charge of the team's penalty kill and the other in charge of the power play. Tony Granato ran the PK last season and implemented system that had a very solid first half before the team struggled with both number of penalties against and with goaltending while on the PK. Ferschweiler will presumably take over the PP coaching duties, having come from a Griffins' team that was tied for 8th overall in the AHL at power play efficiency with a 19.3% scoring rate.
Same Voice, Different Outlook
If you listen to Jeff Blashill interviews, it can be difficult to tell his speaking voice from Mike Babcock's. When you ask the players to tell them apart, you'd think it's night-and-day. We already knew Blashill was a player's coach in a way that Babcock was not, but it's been a revelation this summer to hear it described by the players who speak of a refreshing tone of conversation with Blashill. While both Blashill and Babcock will speak about accountability and hard work, there is definitely a feel coming out of Detroit that the players are going to have slightly more say in their own accountability.
With a squad that's such a mix between champion veterans and hungry youth, the concept of more A-B conversations between players and coaches will either lead to a great amalgam of passion and experience gelling the team together or it will lead to a struggle for team identity. We'll likely see flashes of both this season. The hope will be that the former will happen quickly and the latter will be nothing more than a speed bump in the road.
Different Coaches, Same System?
While the relationship with players will be different, what we don't yet know is how differently the Red Wings will play under Jeff Blashill and his staff. Mike Babcock implemented a low-event system where the Red Wings sacrificed offensive chances to limit shots against by the opposition. Babcock also relied heavily on veterans in his tenure, using "the tie goes to the veteran" as a way to motivate younger players to steal jobs.
Blashill's Griffins didn't exactly play a low-event style, but that's not necessarily telling, considering the talent level difference between the AHL and NHL would mean that trying to play such a tight system would not be a good idea in the lower league. One thing Blashill does have in common is that he did rely heavily on veterans to set his lineup. There may be more offensive chances coming, but Blashill's experience with many of the players who will be on the roster for the Wings may not mean more ice time for those former Griffins players.
Blashill is playing this season with house money after the team failed to make it out of the first round for the second year in a row. The team will be expected to make the playoffs, but it would take a real disaster of a season to really endanger Blashill's job immediately into his NHL coaching career. Anything better than a first round exit will be considered a success.