DETROIT – Looking back, Jeff Blashill wasn’t elated with the way his first season as the Red Wings’ 27th all-time head coach concluded.
It’s not surprising. Like the majority in the coaching fraternity, Blashill is a perfectionist.
So backing into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the regular season, then getting bounced by the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games of their Eastern Conference first-round series isn’t how the Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., native envisioned his rookie season as an NHL head coach ending.
If nothing else, it was definitely a learning experience for the 42-year-old Blashill, who plans to grow from it.
“Without question I better have learned,” Blashill said this week. “That’s with every job I’ve ever had and in every year of every job you better learn and get better.”
There are plenty of growth possibilities for the Wings, who finished with a 41-30-11 record and 93 points – good for third place behind Florida and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division standings.
For the third time since 1990-91, the Wings allowed more goals (219) than they scored. The 209 goals scored were the fewest in a non-lockout shortened season since 1976-77 when they managed 183 goals in an 80-game schedule. And only five teams – Anaheim, Vancouver, Buffalo, Toronto and New Jersey – scored fewer five-on-five goals than the 130 scored by Detroit.
The lack of offensive production can partly be blamed on the inconstancy of some players who took steps backward in their development this season, and for that Blashill takes full responsibility.
“One thing that we want to do is we want to help our guys get better,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t always mean production wise. You’re going to improve from year to year. Sometimes it has to do with minutes and minutes – there’s only so many to go around – and that can affect a lot of things including production. But part of what we want do here is help our guys get better and making sure that we get better as a team through the course of the year.”
Special teams also took a drastic dip this season, despite the additions of free agents Mike Green and Brad Richards last July, and the earlier-than-expected arrival of rookie Dylan Larkin, who scored a team-high 23 goals and represented the Wings at the NHL All-Star Game.
The power play, which led the NHL with 69 goals in 2014-15, swooned this season, falling to No. 11 in the league with just 50 man-advantage goals. Though the penalty kill did show marginal improvement, going from No. 17 (80.9%) a season ago to No. 14 (81.5%) this season.
Despite some turbulence, Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg was satisfied with the fresh start that Blashill and his staff represents.
“It’s been good. I think it was a needed change,” said Zetterberg, who played every game for just the second time in his career. “Jeff with his coaching staff has done a great job this year. I’m looking forward to the future.”
With a year of experience under his belt the analysis and evaluation process now begins for Blashill and the organization as they get set to tackle team needs heading into next season.
“I think part of the process over the next month is looking at every which way that myself and our staff can be better,” Blashill added. “We’ll look at all those ways and we’ll have discussions with our staff and that, we’ll have discussions with Ken Holland and that and ways we can be better.”
Following the Game 5 loss in Tampa, Blashill talked about the importance of having Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall assist his growth and development as a coach wading through the ebbs and flows of his first season.
“There’s no question the core leadership on this team helps any coach be a better coach, including myself,” Blashill said last week. “You never have to wrestle with your best players to show up and work. When you have leadership like that the rest of the team follows. It started a long time ago with obviously Steve Yzerman and it’s continued on. It’s a great culture in the locker room.”
Datsyuk’s imminent departure certainly leaves a void in the Red Wings’ lineup. It also creates a $7.5 million hit to the salary cap for next season. Holland’s only recourse is to trade the rights to a club that needs to raise its salary to the cap floor, which was $52.8 million this season.
The Wings will also look to get better up front and on defense through free agency and possibly trades. But ultimately, Blashill said the young talented players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou need to make improving advancements like Datsyuk and Zetterberg did when Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan were on the back nine of their careers.
“We need some of our young players to become elite players in the NHL, and that is extraordinarily hard to do,” Blashill said. “There’s only so many elite players in the NHL. There’s a couple forwards on each team, maybe a defenseman and maybe a goalie. It’s way different than being a good complimentary player. So ultimately let’s just look up front. Some of our young guys are going to have to become that elite, go-to player that Pav and Z have been here for a long, long time.”
Among the pitfalls and shortcomings of a tumultuous-at-times season, Holland remains firmly committed in his faith of Blashill as he closes the book on his first NHL rodeo and prepares for his sophomore season.
“He’s going to be a better coach for what he went through this year,” Holland said. “I always talk about guys in the minors needing experience, needing to put miles under their tires, and I think Blash did a great job, I think he’s a really good, young coach.
“He found a way to guide our team into the playoffs. We played 7-5 (record) last 12 games to play our way in. Nothing spectacular from a record standpoint but I thought when the season was on the line he got our team to play. We started to evolve as a team and I think he’s going to be a better coach from what he went through this year. I think he’s going to be a tremendous coach in the NHL.”