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Report: Rudderless Red Wings Get New Lines Again, Coach Jeff Blashill Says He’s Putting Away the Line Blender

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Detroit Red WIngs v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With the Red Wings mired in a six-game losing streak including a putrid string in the last three games involving exactly one even-strength goal which led Henrik Zetterberg to tell The Athletic bluntly “we’re not good enough to win games” as he once again had to take the heat for dismal play other than his own, it’s not really a surprise to Wings fans anymore to hear that the lines are changing again. After all, it was Wings fans who inspired Tyler Dellow to dig deep into which coaches like to juggle lines more and, surprise of surprises, he found that Blashill is a common culprit of a strategy which brings questionable short-term gains (link paywalled)

What is surprising though is that apparently Blashill is taking his finger off the Lineninja2000’s sublimation-mode setting and (at least temporarily) committing to adding consistency to at least one part of the Red Wings games outside of their crease.

Of course, I have some thoughts:

We’ll Believe it When We See It

While I’m no psychologist, I’ve never really gotten a confident read into what ever causes Jeff Blashill to tinker with his lines in the first place. I get that the early-season breakup of the Frk-Larkin-Mantha line was a case of worry about not being able to control who matched up against kind of a defensively weak trio while the team was on the road, but after they didn’t get put back together at home or in trailing situations, the reasoning seemed to be “eh let’s see if this sticks.” While the actual report that he’s keeping the lines like this “for a while” is something promising, I’m not to the point yet where I’m willing to believe that Blashill’s definition of “a while” matches mine (i.e. more than two periods to start).

Happy-Happy-Less Happy-WTF

I’m a big fan of those top two lines working like they are for a while. While Nyquist and Tatar didn’t jump out with a set-your-hair-on-fire pace, they worked well together, exhibited good timing and control of spacing both offensively and defensively. It felt like a line that even if it wasn’t clicking perfectly, could at the very least hand off their shift to a line with a positive push in momentum.

AA-Larkin-Mantha is Netflix-and-Chill on skates for me. Two absolute burners and a big guy with deceptive speed should do well to recover the team speed that’s been handed back of late and, although they’re going to make defensive mistakes that will lead to occasional increased pressure on the goalies, the aggression should honestly lead to less of those awful soul-crushing goals-by-eventuality in which the Wings sputter along for 30 seconds before a defensive zone cycle coverage blows or a defender momentarily loses a stick on a garbage shot from the point.

The third line here (and more on this concept in a moment) is where things kind of fail me. Nielsen and Helm are two guys with good speed who play defensively responsible but can’t consistently score and to add to that line they get... another guy with less speed who plays defensively responsible but can’t consistently score. In return, the one-dimensional shot-boomer is relegated even farther from linemates capable of making space for his weapon.

Below that, what we have is a puzzle made of hammered-in jigsaw pieces patched together from three different pictures scattered across the attic. Martin Frk is basically relegated to wasting time at 5-on-5 in hopes that he’ll put up points on the power play. Meanwhile, Luke Glendening and Scott Wilson get a linemate that they can’t really help and who can’t really help them. If this is an energy line, it kind of lacks energy. This is basically a line put together to make space for one offensive specialist, one defensive specialist, and also Scott Wilson for some reason.

The thing here is that Abdelkader-Glendening-Wilson is actually a pretty good-looking fourth line. That’s not a scoring line by any means, but it is an energy line that has scoring capabilities. It’s not ideal to be paying a fourth liner as much as Abdelkader makes, but I’m not in the fandom of watching salaries skate so much as wanting to see more-efficiently utilized talent where you have it.

The Fake Third Line Theory

The fun lie of the Wakiji tweet above (and one that has been repeated by others) is that AA-Larkin-Mantha or that line’s predecessor using Frk as the placeholder is the 2nd line. It makes sense and sells hope because you figure that line should put up the 2nd-most points, but in knowing how Blashill utilizes lines and digging into the reasoning for why Abdelkader isn’t manning the fourth, it’s pretty clear that the plan isn’t to throw three kids into the fires of NHL top-6 responsibilities.

What we’re likely to see is more along the lines of what we saw in the very first game of this season where against the Wild, Henrik Zetterberg was matched up against Minnesota’s top line while Dylan Larkin saw the most time against Joel Eriksson Ek. This left Frans Nielsen, the “third line center” to take the majority of his time against the Wild’s Eric Staal/Charlie Coyle/Nino Neiderreiter line.

Now you can say what’s in a name all you’d like and if you want to say that Staal is below Chris Stewart on the depth chart, more power to you, but I’m sticking with the idea that Abdelkader-Nielsen-Helm is essentially a powered-up OMG line in terms of planned deployment in order to neutralize a 2nd scoring line and free up the kids for slightly easier competition.

Ok, but So What?

In overall terms, I don’t really hate this strategy. My problem with the OMG line last year wasn’t that they were being deployed primarily to supress action, but that they just weren’t good enough to do so at the level being asked of them; Abdelkader-Nielsen-Helm should be able to do that while also downplaying the shortcomings in their games (failing to score on your chances isn’t as big a problem if your entire job is to just not make chances happen for anybody during your shifts).

The loss of any real chance of Frk contributing at 5-on-5 on the line that is unquestionably the fourth feels inefficient to be sure, but the hopeful solution here is that AA-Larkin-Mantha click so well that opposing coaches start really treating them as a 2nd line, which would take the naming of the third line from faux to Pinocchio (in that it would eventually become real, provided they don’t get stuck as donkeys first). Abby-Frans-Helm could at least try to surprise people with goals against real third-line competition and/or it’s possible Frk “after a while” finds himself on such a line freed up to play fun hockey.

Again though, this is all very dependent upon being able to believe this when we see it. The Wings are struggling with identity, consistency, and confidence. Jeff Blashill was already decently high on the list of coaches sitting on a hot seat and the team’s start may not surprise too many fans, but when you’ve got even the team-owned media saying things like the power play deployment is bad, there’s reason to take note for a team we’ve said needs to focus more on deciding how things are going to develop with its players and less on trying coaching magic tricks to squeeze victories out.

Hope may not be a strategy but the strategy of watching games expecting to be entertained by a feckless team isn’t really working right now either.