Last week the Detroit Red Wings saw another one of its organization’s coaches depart for greener pastures. The Dallas Stars plucked Todd Nelson from his seat as the head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, coming off the heels of a first-round exit in the AHL playoffs. Nelson’s second stint with the Griffins proved to be a good stepping stone as he collected the third-most regular season wins (.621 winning percentage) in the AHL since 2015-16 and managed to hoist the franchise’s second Calder Cup in 2017. Of course, the Wings have been struggling the past two seasons under Jeff Blashill, now missing the playoffs in back-to-back campaigns and only have one playoff appearance to show for during his tenure as the team’s bench boss.
Some of you reading this might be inclined to give Blashill the benefit of the doubt considering the carousel of players he’s endured since he took over for Mike Babcock...and that’s okay. However, this is a results business and judging by the past two years, he just simply hasn’t been getting it done at the NHL level. That’s not to say he can’t be a great coach in this league, but he seems to be attached at the hip with Ken Holland — who signed a two-year extension following the regular season — and, if this team wants to get back on track in the win column, the philosophy from top to bottom needs to change.
It can be argued that Blashill’s lack of success can fall heavily on the shoulders of Holland because he has yet to change his own philosophy in appealing to the veterans rather than cater to Blashill’s needs as a young head coach. One thing is for certain, Holland has failed Blashill in many regards since Babcock left for Toronto and his hiring should have been opening the door for a philosophical change within the franchise. By not following through on some roster changes to assist Blashill in his coaching style that he carried with him from a 2013 Calder Cup win with the Griffins, Holland has left the head coach’s potential untapped and the team’s immediate future looking bleak.
When I look at Blashill, I see Babcock, same approach to the game, same banter in the media, it’s a carbon copy. Blashill isn’t off the hook here either because his constant line juggling and tendencies to lean on the veteran core in specific situations was prevalent at key times in the hockey game — Andreas Athanasiou’s lack of ice time comes to mind. There’s no possible excuse giving AA bottom six minutes for much of the season when his style of play transitions well with the new age NHL. Plus, when Evgeny Svechnikov was called up late in the season, what possible good was the fourth line doing for him? He’s a scoring forward with great vision and hands that could one day reach an elite potential, but he can’t execute in a checking role. Nelson’s hiring in favor of Blashill may be perceived as simply change for the sake of change, but at this point what’s the worst that could happen?
Nelson would have been a breath of fresh air on the Detroit bench, especially with his coaching strategy on the powerplay. In 2016-17, he led the Griffins to a 100-point season and much of their success was due in large part to how effective they were on the man advantage. Consider that the Griffins led the entire AHL with a 24.4% powerplay efficiency and 35 of the team’s 80 powerplay goals (43.8%) came from using a five-forward lineup. In contrast, the Wings finished with efficiencies of 15.08% (27th) in 2016-17 and 17.52% (24th) in 2017-18, simply horrible. This is a team trending towards a youth movement that could have benefitted from the type of coaching style that Nelson would bring to the table instead of continuing along the same path in the dinosaur ages of the Holland regime.
Sure, making an alteration to the powerplay isn’t everything in the game of hockey and necessarily going to right the ship for this franchise, but it’s another example of emphasizing a change from behind the clipboard and instilling a different state of mind in this roster. Plus, the fact that Nelson had experience winning a Calder Cup with this next generation of Wings talent would also have been worth the while in my mind to see how it could play out at the NHL level. Would Nelson have been the guy to get Dylan Larkin or Anthony Mantha to the next level? We will never know.
There are parallels that can be drawn between both Blashill’s and Nelson’s situations coming out of Grand Rapids. The two got the opportunity to coach the young core coming through the system, but it felt different this time with Nelson...almost promising. Specifically, on the backend with young players like Filip Hronek, Joe Hicketts and Vili Saarijarvi developing under Nelson’s watch. They’re ready to make the jump to the NHL and Nelson could have been along for the ride. He was also familiar with Tyler Bertuzzi and Svechnikov, two young forwards ready for big minutes in this Wings lineup. Instead, Nelson is headed to Dallas — his third appearance as an assistant in the NHL, including the Atlanta Thrashers and Edmonton Oilers — and the Wings have squandered another opportunity to make a change for the better and possibly alter the course of this franchise’s future for the better.