Jeff Blashill must make the Red Wings his team in his sophomore season
Without the safety net of being a rookie coach, the Red Wings' bench boss is on the hook starting now
Jeff Blashill's inaugural season has come and gone. The 2015-16 Red Wings saw a seven point drop in the standings from Mike Babcock's last season, but with only two fewer wins and just as many ROWs. The team had an increase in goals against and a decrease in goals scored. Saddest of all, the team saw a decrease in playoff games played.
In looking a the sum of the changes for the Red Wings from the 2014-15 season and this one and the differences in the team that knocked us out of the playoffs from last season to this one, the result is somewhere between disappointing and disastrous. Even with the additions of Dylan Larkin, Mike Green, and Brad Richards, the team went from having four 20-goal scorers and two players with over 60 points to just two guys who cracked twenty and a single person reaching even as high as 50 points.
When we started the season, I don't believe too many Red Wings fans expected Detroit to knock the slobber out of the league and return to their rightful place atop hockey, but there was certainly hope that the infusion of youth, the addition of a puck-moving defenseman, a few kids taking the next step, and a coach with a new outlook would make them dangerous. We got to see this mix come together at parts of the season, but we also knew it would be a learning process to make everything gel at once. The Wings still had a very good best case scenario and a real disappointing worst case scenario ahead of them as the season started.
Grading the Team
If a C grade still represents average, then I guess that should be the definition of "met expectations" for the Wings this season. Sadly I don't think I can give them that. Honestly it's tough because I think even taking Tampa to seven games might have gotten them there, but the sting of exactly how the Wings failed in the frustrating and sometimes baffling ways they had been failing all season does not meet expectations. Personally, I can't call the season a failure, but a D grade isn't that much better.
Faulting the Coach
While we know that the changes Ken Holland made weren't good enough and we know that the players bear responsibility for failing to play better, we'll have plenty of time to talk about that this summer. I want to focus on the problems that plagued the Wings all season which can be attributed to coaching and the challenges of being a rookie coach.
I'm certainly not the only fan who saw a different team early in the season from a new, exciting player's coach which seemed to slowly regress back to the same baffling veteran-heavy inconsistent group of players limping into the postseason. While the power play struggled all season, we did see plenty of Dylan Larkin early on tearing it up, as well as a refreshing break-up of Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall. The team seemed to be figuring things out as they went along, staying in contention along with the rest of the Atlantic Division.
Sure, the team had problems starting on time for plenty of games throughout the early part of the season, but it honestly did feel like they were a team that was trying to learn a different way of playing hockey and they were indeed building to that.
Then the Trade Deadline came.
The Wings were in third place in the Atlantic as February ended and just three points out of the division lead. What followed was a 9-9-1 record that saw the solidification of the Kronwall/Ericsson pair, the disappearance of Brendan Smith, the ascent and descent of Anthony Mantha (which matched nicely with the ascent and descent of the Red Wings' power play success rate), and a whole host of confusing quotes about why a player who helped the power play work couldn't stick around or why an electrifying speedster who scored at an elite rate couldn't get more ice time.
The answers to the diggers' questions seemed to only invite more questions and more frustration as the team floundered. It wasn't long before people who had seen the progression of the Wings reverse itself started asking if Blashill was really the one calling the shots. Certainly, I think that it doesn't feel to fans like this truly is Jeff Blashill's team just yet.
One Head, Many Ears
We've seen rumors out there that one of the biggest problems with the confusion is that the leadership of the team has been making personnel, lineup, and strategic decisions. If the personnel thing is true, then it's not just Jeff Blashill being held hostage, since he's not the one who decides who goes on waivers or gets called up, but even Blashill himself has said that he takes input from team leaders. Hell, Mike Babcock said the same thing in regards to Pavel Datsyuk's linemates and the "almost like another coach" role of Henrik Zetterberg.
This is what makes these rumors so absolutely believable (that and the claim that they're from multiple sources, including a player in the locker room). We know that the veteran core of the Red Wings has a say in how things go, so it's not exactly a leap over a large chasm to say that the balance of how much weight the players' input has might be a little off.
The Front Office Angle
One of the things many of us have been wondering isn't about the players calling the shots, but how much Blashill is being led from Ken Holland and/or his assistants. As we've seen the team return to much more of a Babcockian-looking team in the absence of Mike Babcock, it's natural to look for links, and Ken Holland certainly fits the bill in terms of motive and opportunity to be in charge of micromanaging, especially as it comes to past instances like when Babcock told the press that he would have had Xavier Ouellet up to start the 2014-15 season were it not for him being overruled by the GM.
As for the motive of it all, there's certainly the streak to worry about. We fans will spend the next several months bemoaning the stupid thing as a distraction from the changes it will take to make the Wings a contender again, but the team clearly values it. The Wings were in a good spot prior to the trade deadline, but they weren't a world-beater. It does make sense that a front office concerned with not missing the playoffs would step in and demand a more-conservative style meant to make it in at any cost, even if that cost was not properly developing the right strategy to actually win once there.
After all, the overuse of Datsyuk & Zetterberg mixed with the underpreparation of Athanasiou and Mantha doesn't work as a plan unless you consider the alternate was a bigger risk to the team even making the postseason.
The Truth of it All
Sadly, I don't have the answer as to what really is and really isn't true. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it's a combination of factors leading to the strange lack of team identity. I know the answer to that is that Jeff Blashill should have stood up to all of the voices pulling him in multiple directions and reaffirmed himself as the coach of the Red Wings, but the guy has an NHL future to worry about and I'm not sure that if there was a battle to be fought during the season with both his GM and his veteran core, that it was something Blashill could have won.
I get that Blashill probably could have taken on one or the other (though not publicly in either case), but I can't get past the idea that Mike Babcock left a huge power vacuum and no rookie coach was going to be able to completely fill that gap. With that, the rest of the gap tends to get filled with the other powerful people in the room grabbing on where they can.
Even then, it likely still comes across as overly dramatic. I don't think there's a war in the Wings' room or that Blashill is some sort of puppet. I think he gets a lot of suggestions from incredibly well-respected people and that the line between taking advice and being a yes-man is razor-thin.
The Challenge Forward
Regardless of where exactly on the line the truth lies, the problem ahead is that the Red Wings spent an entire season and failed to establish their identity. It's understandable (yet frustrating) that this would come out of the campaign of a coach who had never helmed a team at the NHL level before, but that understanding is over as soon as next seasons' training camp starts.
We'll never know all the facts about why Jeff Blashill didn't get more out of this Red Wings team, but his safety net is now officially gone. If the Red Wings can't become Jeff Blashill's team, then they're bound to become somebody else's.