DETROIT – Last week, Jeff Blashill called him the ‘lead candidate’ in the search for the next Red Wings’ goaltending coach.
On Tuesday, Blashill signed his top contender, promoting Jeff Salajko from AHL Grand Rapids, where the two coached together for two seasons.
The familiarity that Salajko has with the franchise’s goalies – and them of him – should make the transition from Grand Rapids to Detroit smoother than had the team decided on an outside hire.
“I saw first hand his ability to work with Petr Mrazek, his ability to help Jared Coreau and Tommy McCollum get better,” Blashill said. “He’s got a relationship with Jimmy Howard, so for me he hit everything that I was looking for and I thought it was a real good fit.”
The 41-year-old Salajko spent the past three seasons working with the club’s minor-league goalies. He’s now the fifth goaltending coach in Wings’ history. The others were Dave Dryden (1983-87), Phil Myre (1989-93), Dave Prior (1993-94) and Jim Bedard (1997-2016).
In his role with the Griffins, Salajko helped develop goalie prospects in both Grand Rapids and Toledo (ECHL), working with Mrazek, McCollum, Coreau and Jake Paterson. All but Coreau were drafted by the Red Wings.
“He has similar beliefs in what I do in terms of how to train goaltenders in their habits and using simple drills to create good habits, which allows a goaltender to play without thinking and rely on those habits,” Blashill said. “It’s that approach that he takes which is similar to my beliefs in coaching and I think it’s the most successful ways to help goaltenders get better.”
Salajko will now be tasked with helping Mrazek return to the form he had through the first 3 ½ months of last season. At one point, Mrazek led all league goalies in goals-against average and save percentage only to finish the season far off the NHL lead with a 2.33 GAA and .921 save percentage.
But Blashill doesn’t believe consistency issues are the root cause to Mrazek’s struggles that began in mid-February.
“He dipped during that month for certain,” Blashill said. “I’d also say our team didn’t play as well in front of our goalies as we need them to. But overall consistency, I’ve got a larger sample size than just one season, I’ve got multiple seasons with Petr and I know that consistency in my mind is not an issue. I said lots of times Petr has special qualities, especially from the mental side of it. He doesn’t get nervous. He’s got a short memory. He loves the moment. He’s very competitive. I think there’s room for improvement on the technical side of it and as you improve your technical acumen at the goaltending position it allows you to make sure that when you do lose your game a little bit you can get it back as fast as possible. So I want Petr to concentrate on certain things. Jeff Salajko will come up with a plan for him for the summer when Petr is back home that he can work on certain things and then Petr and Jimmy both will get that plan and hopefully they’ll come back into camp better goaltenders than when they left.”
As a player, Salajko was a minor-league journeyman, suiting up for 11 different clubs during an eight-season career that ended when he was diagnosed with benign fasciculation syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by voluntary muscle twitching.
Drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the 10th round in 1993, Salajko never played in the NHL. But the disappointment of not reaching his pro dream has given him good teaching tools in which to work with young prospects.
"Every time you get sent down, it's upsetting, but you've got to make the best of it," Salajko said during a 2014 interview for a story on the Griffins’ website. "I played a lot of games and have a lot of good memories of playing between the IHL and ECHL. I had a couple of call-ups to practice with the big guys but never got into an NHL game, and that's something I regret. But it allowed me to realize how tough it is.
"I'm here to pick these guys up – you don't want to dwell on the negative. Our coach-player relationship is built on trust; I've got their back. But at this level, they know they have to be accountable, too. They know when they haven't played well."
In 2008, Salajko turned to the coaching profession, joining the staff at Ohio State University as a volunteer working primarily with the goalies for three seasons. He also assisted with the Buckeyes’ women’s team for one season (2013-14) before Bedard brought him to the Red Wings’ summer development camp in Traverse City in 2013.
Salajko has been commuting from Columbus, Ohio, where his wife, Karen, is an assistant news director at WBNS-TV, a CBS affiliate.
Salajko joins new assistant coach Doug Houda on the Wings’ coaching staff. Last week, the team announced that Houda, who spent the past 10 seasons in the same capacity with the Boston Bruins, will work with the defenseman and oversee the penalty kill.
The search for a second bench assistant continues. That person will handle the forward lines and command the power play.
“We’re still going through the discovery process, meeting and reaching out to people,” Blashill said. “We’ll bring people in for interviews. We’ll go through that process here… I have no timeline for it other than I want to find the right person that best maximizes our coaching staff.”