Krupa: Blashill not to blame for woeful Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill

Detroit — Last season, like this one, inconsistency marked the Red Wings’ disappointing performance. Jeff Blashill accepted his share of the blame.

“Without question, I better have learned,” Blashill said last April, a few days after his first season as head coach ended.

“Now, that’s in every job I’ve had and in every year of every job I’ve had: You better learn and get better.”

This season, the Wings are worse.

A particularly low moment in the first half came after a 4-1 loss to the Coyotes Dec. 13. The Red Wings were unready to play against an inferior team, at home, in a game pregnant with possible points as their playoff fortunes dimmed.

“Well, ultimately, the performance of this team in my responsibility; 100 percent,” Blashill said. “So, I accept tons of responsibility for that.”

Blashill continues to struggle to improve a team that has done far too much losing in the first 40 games.

The Wings are in last place in the Atlantic Division.

Their power play is so weak it is setting a standard for impotence on the road unseen in the NHL in 30 years.

Their playoff chances are so narrow they must reap about 65 percent of the points available in the 42 games remaining to match their 93-points of last season, when they squeaked into the playoffs.

It will require significant improvement.

Yeoman's task awaits

In the first 40 games, they garnered slightly less than half the points.

Amid the maelstrom, Blashill, 43, grapples in his second season with destructive trends dragging down the franchise.

Players who won Stanley Cups are largely gone. Prized free agents have decide to play with other teams. Misjudgments on personnel have hampered “the rebuild on the fly.”

A roster with a good supply of support players lacks top stars.

Blashill is not to blame.

But he should be gauged by whether players improve and play up to their potential.

And, at about the halfway point of the season, those are big issues of concern.

Unless there is a marked improvement in the Red Wings performance by April, there is likely to be a harsh review of Blashill’s first two seasons.

While the ultimate reckoning may be inappropriate, the team’s descent towards the bottom of the NHL standings increasingly will be attributed to him, despite developments plainly beyond his control.

His predecessor, Mike Babcock, pointed to the aging leadership core , before he left for more promising circumstances in Toronto.

Unknown then was that Pavel Datsyuk’s unhappiness would lead to his departure. Attempts to replace him in free agency made reinforcing the defensive corps all the more difficult.

Then, at the start of the first season without Datsyuk, it became clear Niklas Kronwall’s damaged knees would permanently diminish his performance.

Red Wings midseason report: Playoff streak in big trouble

Meanwhile, with the exception of one recent season, the Wings' power play has been in decline, in large part because they have failed to replace Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski as quarterbacks, five and six seasons after they retired. Regardless of how many Xs and Os as Blashill or John Torchetti, the assistant in charge of the power play, draw up, until defensemen more routinely help gain the offensive zone and set-up shop with the man advantage, the power play is likely to flail.

In a quest for scoring, Blashill has juggled lines to the point of risking unfamiliarity, if not beyond. But there are fewer goals still. Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan continue to slump.

His attempts to bring along young players like Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Ryan Sproul have drawn some criticism from commentators and fans.

Disciplined hand

But Blashill should earn plaudits for some of that work.

Despite the ample struggles of the team and calls to accelerate the development of prospects, Blashill has not lost focus of the need to train the trio to constantly provide the sort of effort — with and without the puck, and in all areas of the ice — that may make them stars, not just players.

All three have felt the sting of reduced playing time when Blashill thought they failed to attend to all of the details of their duties, and they said they understood the process.

In the NHL, it is called coaching.

Blashill’s familiarity with Wings AHL players, having coached in Grand Rapids, is potentially critical. Short of better prospects, arguably his key role is preparing the young players to assume major roles.

“I take responsibility in that, as well,” he said after last season, when Tatar and Nyquist regressed.

“Part of what we want to do here is make sure we’re helping our guys get better and making sure we get better as a team through the course of the year.”

But Nyquist and Tatar are largely failing in their efforts, again, this season, and that makes Blashill’s work with the likes of Dylan Larkin, Mantha, Athanasiou, Sproul, Alexey Marchenko, Xavier Ouellet and Nick Jensen even more important.

One wonders if even Babcock could have gotten more from the current roster, especially with the Red Wings leading the NHL in man-games lost to injury.

But Blashill must secure some improvement. Even if it is only making sure the young guys are fully engaged and playing complete games, his efforts must have an impact.

After last season, Blashill said it is difficult to significantly improve a lineup through free agents and trades.

“From my perspective, we need some of our young players to become elite players in the NHL,” he said. “That is extraordinarily hard to do, and it’s way different than being a good complimentary player.

“And ultimately, some of our young guys are going to have to be that elite, go-to player that ‘Pav’ and ‘Z’ have been here for a long, long time.”

Judging by the first half of the season, it may be all Blashill can do to make sure the young guys are learning the lessons of stars.

The Red Wings sorely need a couple of them.