We've finally run through the player grades for the Red Wings' disappointing season. Now it's time to take stock of how things played out and give an overall grade to the folks whose job it is to hire, develop, coach, and deploy the players to get the most out of them and the best results possible.
Today we'll be looking at the coaching. For brevity's sake, the buck stops at Jeff Blashill. If John Torchetti, Doug Houda, Pat Ferschweiler, Chris Chelios, or anybody else Blashill had reign over failed, then that failure belongs to the head coach in charge of their jobs.
Grading the Coaching
Jeff Blashill came into the season with a lot of questions about a disappointing rookie season as coach where the team consistency failed to grow and basically reverted to what had worked previously; this got them enough wins to sneak into an offseason for which they were ill-suited to play. Pretty much any rookie season for a coach in his position is going to be a wait-and-see year, but year 2 is where the safety net gets withered away.
For Blashill, the big test was going to be whether he could improve on the consistency while making his mark on the team. He needed to develop young players and manage the time of the veterans. Blashill had a goalie tandem to handle, a power play to fix, and a team that needed to get tougher to play against.
To that end, I'll be looking at the high-level responsibilities for the coach and giving grades for each of those before giving out the overall grade.
I feel Blashill has spent most of the last two seasons working on creating a consistent gameplan that mixes between the more open, aggressive style he ran in Grand Rapids with the reality that he doesn’t have the team to carry that out. As a result of this, occasional attempts to create a more-dynamic offensive-zone setup via activating defensemen up the boards or into the slot kept getting met with odd-man rushes and eventually would lead the Wings to play a much more-careful style in the offensive zone to prevent that. In their own zone, the Wings played a passive-collapse that gave the opposition a lot of time to cycle around the perimeter looking for dangerous chances. For the most part, the Wings were able to keep the pace down, but weren't dangerous enough on the counter-attack. Part of this was because the defense was free to jump up to help the zone exits, but found themselves having to back off too much on the rushes through center. Some of this was talent drain, but overall it ended up helping exploit a weakness (defensive first-passes) while minimizing a strength (neutral zone speed).
I could probably give Blashill a passing grade for making the most of the situation, but the special teams did have talent enough to be better than they were and marked a huge failure. This bleeds into the player deployment section later because I feel that hurt things most, but overall that was something which was planned and failed.
This one is kind of tough to separate out from game-planning and talent-level effects, but the cons outweigh the pros in the kind of numbers you can at least partially attribute to in-game adjustments. The Wings for instance, were only .500 in terms of winning games in which they scored first (with a .625 points percentage due to half their losses after scoring first being OT losses). When giving up the first goal, Detroit was only the 21st-best team in terms of coming back to win. Goal differentials in all three periods of play were negative, but interestingly, Detroit was one of the best teams at preventing goals in the 2nd period, which is likely more a gameplan thing than an adjustment credit.
In general, I can't really say that the team's tendency to lose games late was really an adjustment problem, but better adjustments probably would have led to better results. In terms of more-obvious decisions, Blashill was not terribly good at winning challenges on goals, but I think a good portion of those he used were shot-in-the-dark attempts which doubled as extended timeouts for his team. The other piece was bench minors (too many men) - Detroit took eight of those, which is better than average and an improvement over previous seasons.
The biggest knock against Blashill here was questionable line-juggling. We've gotten used to a lot of this in Detroit in the last few years, but the double-edge to being quick switching up combinations for a spark is that it also puts stress on line timing and chemistry. The Red Wings this year seemed sensitive to momentum losses and it's very hard to watch wondering if passes missing by a few feet are attributable to a lost sense of expectancy.
The narrative all season was that this killed the Red Wings, as Blashill took a lot of heat for leaning more on players he shouldn't have leaned on so much. The reality is that Blashill's deployment evolved much more than the narrative about it. It's not that he was able to overcome bad habits like putting sacrificial grinders out there, committing to less-effective players on special teams, and over-shuffling to shake up chemistry, but by the end of the season, the average TOI for the fourth line had dropped to about 10 minutes, the most-often used defenseman was Mike Green, and Nik Kronwall had become more-sheltered than guys like Nick Jensen and Xavier Ouellet.
The question here remains about the middle-of-the-lineup guys. Zetterberg got VERY heavy anchoring duties and brought up the performance of anybody with him, but lost in the shuffle were guys like Frans Nielsen, Dylan Larkin, and Riley Sheahan. Nielsen especially got used like a band-aid on whatever players were ailing defensively and it hurt his offensive numbers. Sheahan probably could have used a pressure-relieving sit-down in the midst of his goal drought, and Larkin kind of yo-yoed between having pressure put on and taken off with his deployment. It's hard to say whether the depth issues were more talent or coaching, but I can't give Blashill a pass with so many questions about why he put guys where he did so often.
Right up front I'll tell you that this portion is the lightest-weighted part of the grade for Blashill. I'm doing this because I don't have reason to believe Blashill was tasked heavily with development for the season, as the evidence suggests he was tasked more with "winning now" than being a bit more permissive with mistakes as kids came along. I'll also say this is lighter because most of the roster was not in a development stage. Guys like Nyquist/Tatar are not developing players anymore, Sheahan is right on the brink, and Jensen just barely qualifies.
That said, I think Blashill did a passable job in this department (at least to the degree to which I can separate this portion out from deployment). Dylan Larkin's struggles showed him a whole lot about what it's going to take to take his game to the next level and although he didn't reach that this season, I feel he's closer to it now than he was to start. Both Nick Jensen and Xavier Ouellet were given the opportunity to show they could take on larger and larger roles on the defense and both did admirably following that path as Blashill laid it out.
Of course, the treatment of Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou remains a hot-button issue with Red WIngs fans, who feel like these two potential top-six players were treated unfairly and that their improvement as players over the course of the season is either not creditable to Blashill or goes as far as being in spite of Blashill's coaching. Personally, I feel that Blashill's higher standard for better prospects was one of the brightest spots for him this season. Both players have the raw talent to be real difference-makers in this league, but the difference between leagues is steep, as is the difference between top-sixers and depth forwards; nobody gets there on talent alone.
Overall Grade: F
Even as a person who doesn't feel like Blashill should necessarily lose his job, I have to say he failed in most of those areas. The Red Wings remained a low-event team that took too many penalties, allowed more attempts than they took, couldn't get rolling on the power play, and essentially wasn't unlucky enough on-ice to wave that all away with a "shit happens sometimes."
The preseason predictions for the Wings indicated that they could end up out of the playoffs, so Jeff Blashill is not simply getting an F because the streak ended. The thing is that the Wings had enough talent to make the playoffs, but could not consistently bring all that talent to bear in the most-effective means possible. Looking at the way the season played out, I don't believe we can accurately say the coach should get a passing grade for a good process sabotaged by bad luck, but rather that he bears responsibility for a team that could not find the balance between scoring goals and allowing them, and for a team who played for marginal wins getting losses instead; especially on special teams, which I feel is a place where a coaching advantage should really shine.
The uplifting part here is that Blashill’s performance so far at the Worlds is a promising reminder that he’s capable of handing young teams, which is what the Wings need to become. It’s tempting to give him more rope on the concept of GM meddling or even the expectation he’ll improve in year three, but the coach is there to win games and Blashill didn’t do enough to make that happen this season.
What Grade Should Jeff Blashill Receive
This poll is closed
(I am) A (troll)