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Red Wings try to maintain culture in down year

Coach Jeff Blashill willing to scratch young players to teach lessons

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

When the Detroit Red Wings returned from their five-day break Feb. 27, coach Jeff Blashill had a talk with his players.

The Red Wings were last in the Eastern Conference. The NHL Trade Deadline was two days away. Everyone knew they likely were going to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in more than a quarter-century and general manager Ken Holland was about to sell off pending unrestricted free agents.

Yet they had 21 games left to play.

Blashill talked about the tradition that had been established in Detroit beyond winning, the culture in the locker room.

"No matter what draft picks we get, no matter anything that happens, if this culture maintains, this organization's going to be in a great spot for years to come," Blashill said after practice that day. "If this culture goes away, this organization will not be in a great spot for years to come.

"My job is to make sure we keep that culture in place. That's not necessarily a wins-and-losses thing. That's one thing that gets missed sometimes. That's your approach every single day: how hard you work, how much you pay attention to detail and how selfless you are. And if we can maintain that part of it, that's our No. 1 priority here."

Those are empty words unless you follow through, and Blashill followed through when he scratched forward Anthony Mantha for the Red Wings game against the Chicago Blackhawks at Joe Louis Arena on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, FS-D, CSN-CH, NHL.TV).

Mantha, 22, is a key part of the Red Wings' future. They selected him in the first round (No. 20) of the 2013 NHL Draft. He is 6-foot-5, 221 pounds, with a deft scoring touch. But the coaches have been on him about competing harder, paying better attention to detail and doing it consistently. He started the season with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League.

Video: DET@EDM: Mantha slams home Zetterberg's dish

Since getting called up in November, Mantha has 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 50 games. He's second on the Red Wings in points per game (0.66), behind captain Henrik Zetterberg (0.82). (Forward Thomas Vanek had 0.79 points per game before he was traded to the Florida Panthers on March 1.)

But the Red Wings were losing 4-0 to the Boston Bruins in the second period at TD Garden on Wednesday when Mantha carried the puck into the Bruins zone. Surrounded by four defenders, he didn't chip the puck deep. He carried it to the left wing, curled around and turned it over. When Bruins defenseman Colin Miller passed the puck ahead to forward Brad Marchand for a breakaway, Mantha did not skate hard on the backcheck -- right in front of the Red Wings bench. He was coasting upright when Marchand scored to make it 5-0. The Red Wings lost 6-1.

Yes, it was one play, and it came in a game in which many Red Wings brought far from their best. Blashill opens himself to criticism when he seems to have a higher standard for Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou, another key part of the Red Wings' future, another 22-year-old forward with great skill and similar issues who has been scratched this season. Why is Blashill picking on Mantha and Athanasiou when this guy did this or that guy did that?

But it was more than one play. It was part of a pattern, and Mantha's bad habits had been resurfacing during the past four games. Blashill's job is to win, but he has to balance the short term and long term. He was doing this when the Red Wings still had a chance to make the playoffs, even though it might have hurt their chances, and he's continuing to do it now. It might be even more important now to keep the pressure on when it seems off. Coaches often talk about controlling what you can control. Mistakes are one thing; effort and attention to detail are another.

Blashill might like to scratch other players too, but he can't scratch everybody. He has a higher standard for Mantha and Athanasiou for two reasons: They're young, so he has a better chance of changing their habits. They have higher ceilings than others, so they have more room to grow. Coaches often talk about "fair but not equal." This is one of those cases.

Video: DET@BOS: Rask stones streaking Athanasiou in tight

"I've talked publicly about how when [Mantha] is great, he moves his feet and he wins battles," Blashill said Friday. "If he does those things, he's been a great player, and at times he's been one of our best, no question about it. I think his future is extremely bright. There's lots of different ways to train habits, and one of the ways is ice time at times."

Mantha told reporters Friday that he was mad when he saw the lineup. That's good. This is even better: He talked to Blashill about it on the ice during the morning skate, and said he needed to prove Blashill wrong and be better the next few games. He said he needed to work harder, win more battles, be more intense, bring the game he brought when he first got called up.

"The best players out there are [Sidney] Crosby, [Connor] McDavid and those guys," Mantha said. "Even Zetterberg's a great player again this year. He's shown it over the years. They just play their game every single night. They're the same player in and out, and they just work so hard that they become impact players."

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