Today we take a look at the contributors who don’t don the winged wheel jersey but arguably have more control over the season’s results than any of the players. As noted in the previous articles, everyone tends to have their own grading system. The grades here for coaching and front office roles are probably the most subjective of all and worthy of the most debate. With that being said, explanations will be included below for each grade. Let’s get into it...
Jeff Blashill entered the season with the bar set pretty low. The Red Wings were coming off of a tough season, finishing near the bottom of the standings. The only reason for any optimism was a hot finish led by their young stars that could hopefully carry over to this season. Blashill came into this season with very much the same squad as the team didn’t really have any significant departures or additions.
As a result there weren’t very many expectations for Blashill. The team was expected to bottom out or at least be close to the bottom of the standings. But where he was needed was to ensure the young players on the roster continued to develop and to assist players like Larkin, Mantha, Bertuzzi, and others ascend to the next level in their development arc.
Well, the Red Wings certainly bottomed out, cratering way further than expected. They were on pace for a record setting poor finish before the stoppage. That buck largely stops with Blashill. The team looked completely unmotivated at times getting blown out regularly. It’s hard to find motivation when things are going that poorly, but that’s his job as the head coach. 17-49-5 for 39 points is where the Red Wings ended up after 71 games. While he wasn’t given much to work with that is still abysmal in a league that is supposedly filled with parity. The team averaged 2.00 goals per game while giving up 3.73. That’s a ghastly difference. None of this is news, but perhaps just a friendly reminder of just how bad this team was this season.
So what about player growth? Dylan Larkin fell off his point per game pace from last season dropping to 53 points in 71 games. One area he perhaps improved was his two way play with only he and Mantha posting Corsi numbers above 50%. He also seemed to grow as a leader taking on a large portion of the blame in front of the media after particularly tough games. But that’s really grasping at straws to think Blashill had much to do with that.
Mantha missed a large portion of the season due to getting hurt in fights. Your leading scorer shouldn’t be in that position especially when it’s jeopardized his health in the past. Now this may well be that Mantha is putting himself in these scenarios, maybe even with specific instruction to avoid getting into altercations. But it’s on the coach to ensure someone else steps up when it’s called for.
Bertuzzi’s numbers remained about the same from last season. It could be argued that he’s probably maximized his production based on his talent at this point but it was expected he would maintain it. Filip Hronek’s points didn’t take off drastically from a points per game view. But the young defenseman was handed the reigns by his coach after DeKeyser went down, pacing the team at 23:54 per game. The minutes appeared to wear him down as the season went on but it likely will help him moving forward. Still, his coach could have given him a bit of a break here and there if he was in touch with what the workload was doing to him.
That may even be generous based on the that analysis. Combine a just outright terrible record with minimal growth, if any, from the future of the team and Blashill found a way to limbo under the incredibly low bar. The only thing saving him from a failing grade is the same thing that probably saved his job. He was given essentially nothing to work outside 3-4 players on this roster. That advances him to next season but if results are just as poor early he’ll be looking at an incomplete grade rather than a fail.
Bylsma was the veteran assistant coach put in place to help Blashill along thanks to his previous experience including time as a head coach. Bylsma’s specific tasks included managing the forwards (which may or may not have included line changes), and largely to run the power play.
The expectations for the forwards were covered in fair detail above. But beyond the big three, the hope was to find some semblance of chemistry through the bottom nine. Just enough to tread water on their own and not get caved in (foreshadowing). Maybe make some room for young players to learn and grow next to the more well seasoned veterans. As far as the powerplay, given the dearth of talent on the roster, expectations weren’t high either. There was hope that perhaps a decent, maybe even league average top unit could be assembled from the top heavy roster that could drag the powerplay along as a whole.
If Bylsma’s role was to help Blashill find chemistry beyond Larkin, Bertuzzi, and Mantha, he failed miserably. Unless of course you’re counting any of the line combinations that involved one or two of these players alongside the rest of the lineup. For today’s purposes we’re not, because breaking that unit up meant breaking up the only productive line.
Robby Fabbri was the lone bright spot beyond the aforementioned three. He posted 14 goals and 31 points in 52 games with Detroit. Andreas Athanasiou never really got it going and was subsequently dealt at the deadline. The next most productive player was Valtteri Filppula with 21 points in 70 games, mainly as the second line center.
As far as the power play is concerned, the Red Wings finished with a 14.88 PP%. That was good for 29th in the league, just ahead of Anaheim and Ottawa. Even with low expectations there was hope for better than that. Yes the Red Wings only have one right handed shooter worthy of power play time in Filip Hronek which makes adding any deception to the power play difficult. But still, expectations were for more especially given Bylsma’s experience.
Bylsma gets the slightly better grade than Blashill only because the forward unit was a little better than the defense, which we’ll get into in a second. Bylsma’s name was brought up often as the instant replacement for Blashill should he have gotten fired mid-season. But looking at the groups he was in charge of, it’s not clear the team would have been in any better hands.
Houda served as the other key assistant coach on Blashill’s staff. Alternatively to Bylsma, Houda was in charge of the defense and the penalty kill. Houda has also been around the team for several seasons and is very familiar with the group.
Expectations for these groups along with the rest of the team were fairly low entering the season. Understandably, this is likely where the bar was set lowest given the players available to fill out the 6 man rotation. Houda didn’t even have to carry the weight of developing them much as this was season was the last for several veteran defensemen who were simply there to fill a spot on the bench for this doomed season. The only ones he was charged with for development were Hronek, as well as Dennis Cholowski (36 games) and Gustav Lindstrom (16 games) in their limited time with the big club.
His specials team work with the penalty kill didn’t expect to garner great results either. Penalty kills in general are heavily reliant on goaltending rather than the talent of the skaters. But it’s also a unit that can be heavily influenced by coaching. Given that so many of Detroit’s bottom nine forwards are considered to be able to offer something in the way of penalty killing, achieving a mid-pack or otherwise mediocre penalty kill rate was probably a fair goal.
In a season full of disappointments, the defense may have been the worst culprit. Losing DeKeyser very early on didn’t help but this unit delivered a whole new definition to awful. Some of the veterans were very clearly heading for likely retirement such as Ericsson and Daley. Bowey continued where he left off as a guy who can offer you something offensively from the back end, but gives up much more than he delivers in terms of defensive offset.
Detroit’s defensemen scored 18 goals this season. Half of those were from Hronek who was the lone bright spot on this unit. Cholowski once again started the season with the team before being scratched enough to find himself back in Grand Rapids. Lindstrom looked like he could be serviceable in a limited sample of 16 games. But at the end of the day there couldn’t have been a worse overall unit in the NHL.
The penalty kill which should have managed to be at least serviceable was a league-worst offering at 74.34%. Part of that was due in fault to Jimmy Howard’s awful numbers this season. But that should have been offset, at least in part, by the generally great numbers posted by Jonathan Bernier. But the results are what they are and Detroit was at the bottom of the barrel.
The first coach to be given the full failing grade. Houda nearly was given the sympathy D- for the same reason Blashill was, no talent to work with. Several of his defensemen were aging out or had aged out of being NHL calibre. But the breaking point is because of his failings with Cholowski and Hronek’s mild regression as the season wore on. Combine a league worst defensive unit with a league worst penalty kill and it’s probably generous that Houda is still with the team. If any heads were going to roll, his probably should have been first.
As we get a bit deeper into the assistant coaching ranks here the assessment will be much more brief. Salajko was originally brought up the Red Wings as goaltending coach because he was Petr Mrazek’s guy when he came up from the AHL. He has remained in that position for the past 4 seasons with the club. Given the veteran nature of both Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier, Salajko’s role was pretty limited to just trying to keep these two sharp. There’s something to be said for you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Talk about very hot and cold results. Jimmy Howard at age 35 clearly looked like he couldn’t cut it anymore. He didn’t exactly have a competent group in front of him but an .882 SV% won’t cut it on a good team. His quality start % was .259. That roughly means the amount of his starts worthy of a starting goaltender, yikes. His counterpart Bernier however was arguably the team’s MVP, for what that’s worth.
This grade comes with a heavy dose of giving Salajko the benefit of the doubt that Jimmy’s tumble was a result of him aging out rather than anything to do with the coach. Bernier’s in some ways career year is being given as a partial credit to Salajko as he assisted the goaltender in preparing for the nightly onslaughts he faced and still being able to push through.
Yzerman took over for Ken Holland this offseason after Holland stepped aside (or up) to allow for Yzerman’s return to much fanfare. Holland then abruptly left for Edmonton, possibly in part due to feeling unappreciated after his decades of service. In some ways those feelings could have been valid.
But the mess Yzerman inherited was not going to be easy or quick to clean up. Yzerman even relentlessly preached this at any media availability noting a proper rebuild was going to take time and patience from the fan base. He saw what this season was going to be and wanted everybody to be prepared.
It’s probably fair to say the expectations for Yzerman this season were simply to begin the overturning of the roster to allow young bodies to enter the lineup, clear cap space where possible, move veterans out, and acquire prospects and draft picks for the base of this rebuild. There was little expectation in terms of trying to add talent to this roster for this season, call it a throwaway before even getting started.
Yzerman definitely wasn’t wrong in telling fans to be prepared for some pain early on. We’ve already discussed the team’s awful record. But Yzerman did the right thing in not acquiring players to dry and bail out what was a sinking ship. That being said Yzerman did make some changes along the way. Looking at some of the more notable moves, there are:
Drafted Moritz Seider 6th overall
Signed Filppula, Nemeth, and Pickard to 2-year deals on July 1
Traded a 4th Round Pick to Tampa Bay for Adam Erne
Traded David Pope to Vancouver for Alex Biega
Traded Alec Regula to Chicago for Brendan Perlini
Traded Jacob de la Rose to St. Louis for Robby Fabbri
Traded Mike Green to Edmonton for what became a 4th Round Pick
Traded Andreas Athanasiou and Ryan Kuffner to Edmonton for (2) 2nd Round Picks and Sam Gagner
Signed Alex Biega to a one-year extension
Signed free agent Mathias Brome from Europe
Signed RFA Evgeny Svechnikov to a one-year extension
Signed RFA Robby Fabbri to a two-year extension (2.95M AAV)
Yzerman started his tenure with a big surprise drafting Moritz Seider well ahead of projections at 6th overall. Fast forward and the pick is looking better and better with time as Seider is quickly accelerating towards a spot on the Red Wings roster to start next season and is receiving glowing reviews in prospect reports. Credit Yzerman and his staff with the foresight to see what Seider was capable of and the guts to make the pick.
Let’s start with the free agency moves. Yzerman used July 1 the way it should be used. He signed useful veterans to help plug roster holes without giving them massive dollars or term. Nemeth has been a great addition who was asked at times to play higher in the lineup than his abilities but he’s certainly justified his contract. Filppula fell short of being a second line center despite being inserted as one in the lineup, but he was paid like a third line center and is only locked in through next season. All in all Yzerman did a good job on July 1 when a lot of GM’s can bury themselves.
Through the season and prior to the deadline Yzerman’s moves all had a common pattern. Acquiring players who had fallen short of their pedigree either due to opportunity, injury, or otherwise. He gave up very little in these deals, with the exception of perhaps Regula but time will tell. The players that came in on those deals generally didn’t do anything to better their careers. Erne played a lot of games but never posted any stats, Perlini was in and out of the lineup and never got going. Biega was certainly serviceable and earned an extension as a depth defenseman. But Robby Fabbri was the reason you make those low risk deals. Fabbri got buried by a combination of multiple knee injuries and being part of a Stanley Cup winning Blues roster. He has been everything Yzerman hoped for and then some, producing like the first round pick he once was.
With the trade deadline, Yzerman didn’t get the first round pick fans were hoping for. But when your roster is this bad, other teams aren’t exactly lining up for your guys. In hindsight the Green deal wasn’t bad considering the handful of games he played for them before opting out of the playoffs and retiring. Also the Athanasiou deal is looking good obtaining two 2nd rounders. The Oilers may not even re-up the mercurial forward who’s set to be an RFA after he failed to jell with the team.
The Fabbri deal seems fair both in dollars and term, a low risk signing for the team and if Fabbri remains healthy the deal will look great. Giving Svechnikov one more chance is probably a good idea. Brome is a no risk signing that could pay off.
The common trend among all these moves is Yzerman made subtle changes for the most part that gradually improved the team. The Seider pick offers great hope that his scouting staff will help bolster the cupboards for this team moving forward. This is the one case in all of the above grades where we may not have given enough credit on the grade. The only thing holding Yzerman back from an A grade so far is not swinging a big deal, getting an extra 1st round pick, and being unable to unload the Abdelkader and Nielsen contracts.
But we may want to retroactively change this grade in the coming months if Yzerman is able to weaponize his cap space in a suddenly cap-strapped league and obtain additional draft picks and prospects.
So while the coaching certainly left a lot to be desired, there is certainly confidence that the man pulling all the strings is the right guy for the job and will gradually put together this rebuild and guide this team back to its former glory.
Note: All stats provided are as per hockey-reference.com