It’s been a couple weeks now since we received the official announcement of Jeff Blashill’s extension as the coach of the Detroit Red Wings for another two seasons. The reaction in Red Wings nation has been predictably disappointed despite Ken Holland announcing long ago that this extension was in the works. But let’s take a closer look at the deal to see the factors that led here and what the alternatives were.
First off if you weren’t already aware, Blashill was on an expiring contract often referred to do as a “lame duck” status when your future beyond the current season is not secured. It is a common occurrence for coaches to carry this status during a season, albeit with some negative connotations. But as J.J. pointed out on the latest WIIM Radio podcast it is a very rare circumstance to have a coach enter the off-season without a contract for the following year. This put Ken Holland in a bit of a predicament in terms of deciding either to extend Blashill or look for a new coach to lead the team. Coaches in these situations are almost always either fired or extended mid-season.
Holland could’ve fired Blashill and chosen to go with an interim coach until the Wings got to the off-season and more candidates became available as other teams fired their coaches. But given the current state of the Wings roster there was far from a guarantee that any of the top candidates would choose the Red Wings over other options. Of course there’s always the old adage that money talks and if Holland wrote a blank cheque he could bring in anybody he wanted. Money is obviously a large part of these coaches’ decisions, but consideration has to also be given to how difficult a situation their entering. It’s one thing to ask a coach to take an already contender over the last hurdle, compared to helping build a team from the ground up.
The name often cited for pursuing this route was Joel Quenneville, who is undoubtedly a great coach. He’s also now been hired in Florida following Bob Boughner’s firing. There are very few people who would say Blashill is a better coach than Quenneville. But that’s assuming he would come to the Wings, and in Holland’s shoes that’s a pretty steep risk to take for justifying letting Blashill go. If Holland were to miss on Quenneville other options would have included Todd McLellan, Guy Boucher, and any others let go by their respective teams following the season. The Wings could also consider going to the AHL ranks to find an up and coming coach but given that’s how Blashill obtained his position, they likely would’ve pursued a coach with experience at the NHL level already.
However the pursuit of any coach is based on the assumption that Blashill is not the man for the job. Given that Ottawa, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Edmonton, and other bottom teams have decided to let their coaches go, the Wings would certainly fit right in by letting their coach go too.
But look at Blashill in isolation to evaluate what he’s done since he took over in 2015 when Babcock left. When Blashill entered as head coach the Red Wings were a team in decline. During Babcock’s last season the Wings managed 100 pts, good enough for third in the Atlantic. They opened the playoffs against Tampa Bay and lost in 7 games. Fast forward to the 2015-16 season, Blashill’s first at the helm with what was largely the same roster. The Wings finished with 93 points, beating out Boston for third place in the Atlantic on a tie breaker that kept them in the playoffs. Their opponent was once again Tampa Bay where they lost out in 5 games. So with the same roster, but a year older, Blashill came up short 7 pts and two playoff games against an improving Tampa team from where Babcock was able to take them. Considering it was his first season as an NHL head coach it’s fair to say he at least met expectations.
But after that first season is where the team began it’s rapid descent. The Wings finished with 79 points in 2016-17 ending the playoff streak. Things didn’t get better as in the two seasons that followed the team finished with 73 points and then 74 points this season. Seeing the drop in points as Blashill’s tenure rolled along would of course catch attention. There were calls for him to be axed after last season. But as most realise, the roster continued to age and Blashill had less to work with each season as recycled veterans were brought in to hold the roster together.
One of the things that Blashill was heralded for coming in was his ability to develop the young players. He had done a great job with the Grand Rapids Griffins and preparing those players for the NHL level. Regardless of what happened after he got here, his work at the AHL level was strong and he was on many team’s radars if the Wings did not promote him. But has he been able to bring that trait to the NHL level and help the younger players on the roster improve during his time at the top level?
Dylan Larkin is a good place to start. His rookie season coincided with Blashill’s first season where the rookie put up 23 goals and 45 points. His sophomore was a setback at 17 goals and 32 points. But in his third season he racked up assists on his way to 63 points, and then of course this season’s team leading 32 goals and 73 points. His TOI and FO% have climbed almost every season with the exception of that second year. Larkin’s possession numbers have also improved gradually, and in particular his CF% rel this season was 10.2. This supports the theory Larkin has improved his two way play, this season especially. But Larkin is an exception to the rule in terms of how young players are brought along since Blashill has been behind the Red Wings bench.
One example of how younger players have generally faced more challenges with the coach is Andreas Athanasiou. There has been growth this season from a player that was once deep in Blashill’s dog house in Athanasiou. He seemed to stagnate a bit from 2016-2017 to 2017-2018 where his goal and point totals plateaued under the 20 goal and 35 point mark. But it should be noted between those two seasons his shooting percentage dropped from 15.0% to 9.4%, which was a large factor. But there was a storyline throughout that 2017-18 season that Athanasiou couldn’t get his minutes up and play on lines with the better talent on the team because areas of his game lacked in his own end. Blashill was quoted several times in post-game scrums calling the young speedster out, often citing his consistency from shift to shift and not cheating his defensive duties. But then came this last season when Athanasiou’s numbers exploded to the tune of 30 goals and 54 points, along with an uptick in minutes to 16:58 per game. He even had some time at centre down the stretch, a position with additional defensive responsibilities. One concern though is that his possession numbers actually took quite a hit this season with a CF% of 45.9 compared to numbers above 48% in his previous seasons. While those metrics raise a red flag, it’s still fair to say Athanasiou improved his play this season and can hopefully follow Larkin’s lead in bettering his possession numbers next season.
Anthony Mantha’s development curve has somewhat mirrored Athanasiou’s with him seeming to plateau a bit and gain the coach’s ire for similar reasons in the past. His point totals didn’t take a massive jump this year but he matched last year’s output in 13 fewer games while continuing to gain minutes. His possession numbers did jump significantly though with a CF% of 55% this season, after posting 51.8% last season.
Other young players who have showed well under Blashill’s watch include Tyler Bertuzzi, and Filip Hronek. Perhaps add Dennis Cholowski to that mix although he was sent down mid-season after his play dropped off a bit. Nick Jensen is another player that Blashill played a part in cultivating.
There could very well be an argument that these players all improved in spite of Blashill rather than because of his guidance. Blashill may not be in charge of his roster, with that instead determined by Ken Holland and his management team. But Blashill does control ice time when players are on the roster. There was a clear indication at times in any of his seasons that he was apprehensive about allowing younger players to get a lot of ice time. Take this season for example, Michael Rasmussen averaged just over 12 minutes a game in 2018-19. Many considered that a questionable deployment particularly when it was clear the Wings would be nowhere near contention. The same can be said for players like Athanasiou who didn’t see his minutes climb until later in the 2017-18 season and throughout this last season. Reasons cited for his lack of time were always that he needed to improve his two way play and be harder on the puck. So the difficulty is determining if being hard on players like Athanasiou is what helped him become a better player this season and the same will happen with Rasmussen or if the improvement would’ve happened sooner if they were given more ice time to work through their development. It’s hard to prove that either way statistically but it’s probably not fair to state that the development of Larkin, Athanasiou, Mantha, Bertuzzi and others was all completely unrelated to Blashill’s coaching. The answer is likely somewhere in between, with a portion of their improvement coming from the player’s own natural development.
Another point of consideration is how outside sources view Blashill now after four seasons at the helm. Do they still think as highly as they did when he was coming up through the AHL? Take the fact he’s set to begin his third tour of duty in a row as the bench boss of Team USA at the world championships as a factor in his favour. The team finished 5th and 3rd the last two years respectively. Yes, you have to be a coach that’s not in the playoffs to get that opportunity to begin with but it’s still an accomplishment and an indication other league executives still think he’s a good coach.
Ultimately despite four seasons making him one of the league’s longest tenured coaches, Blashill is still somewhat of an unknown. He’s managed a roster that has had it’s talent gradually seeped away by declining veterans and a youth movement that really only took hold this past season. Of the other available coaches, could any of them managed better with the rosters he’s had? Next year should be a significant shifting of the tide for the franchise with some of the aforementioned players ready to steer this team towards the awaited turnaround. This upcoming season might be the truest test of Blashill’s ability. If he can’t lead this team to an improvement next season on the backs of the new core than that would provide some finite proof that he doesn’t have the ability to lead a contender at this level. If this team flounders next season and ends up in the bottom five again, there is a very good chance he doesn’t make it to the 2020-2021 season.
That is why the 2-year extension makes sense, even if it makes you wince. Blashill deserves a chance to prove what he can do with a capable roster. If he falls flat than you relieve him with one season remaining on his contract, a small price to pay, and seek a coach for the new era. But if the team improves, maybe he’s been the right guy all along as originally hoped and finally has the roster needed.
All stats courtesy of hockey-reference.com