Detroit — It has been 30 years since the head coach of the Red Wings faced challenges like those confronting Jeff Blashill.
The roster is still thin, recovering from the retirements of most of the players who won Stanley Cups while Henrik Zetterberg, 37, leads them, including in time on ice among the forwards in many games.
In 1985-86, when Harry Neale and then Brad Park succeeded Nick Polano as head coach before handing the bench boss job off to Jacques Demers the following season, the franchise hit its nadir. The Wings had their all-time worst season, 31 years after their previous cup in 1955.
A great hope, Steve Yzerman, played in his third season. Only he and Joe Kocur, of all the players on the roster, would go on to win Stanley Cups for the Red Wings.
The last player who had won a cup for them, Alex Delvecchio, had been retired for 13 years.
Polano, Neale, Park and Demers all faced a bigger rebuilding job than Blashill. But not by a much.
The Red Wings are unlikely to lose 57 games, as they did in 1985-86.
But they lost 36 last season, the most since 1990-91, and six more than the Wings lost the previous year, in Blashill’s first season.
And so it was that things got a little sticky during the recent 0-5-1 stretch.
Blashill shuffled the lineup, and popped his cork after the team performed miserably during a loss to Vancouver.
Then Elliotte Friedman reported Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada that if – emphasis on the “if “– the Wings fired Blashill, possible replacements include Griffins coach Todd Nelson, who coached the Oilers for 51 games two seasons ago, and Dave Tippett, a 15-year veteran head coach in the NHL, who left the Coyotes in June by mutual agreement.
On Tuesday in his weekly “31 Thoughts” column for Sportsnet, Friedman updated his reporting, writing that after the Red Wings’ two wins the “if” had gotten bigger, and Tippett is less likely as a potential candidate.
Blashill said he felt no need for any vindication when the Red Wings beat the Panthers 3-1 Saturday and the lowly Coyotes 5-3 Tuesday.
But he also clearly felt the continuing weight of the challenge of his tenure.
“To be honest with you, it’s rough and it’s frustrating,” Blashill said, referring to the streak. “But you’ve got to block all that stuff out and you’ve got to continue to take it game by game.
“But, we’ve won two games. So, let’s lace up tomorrow night and find a way to win tomorrow night, because the win last night is over. It’s meaningless now.
“Let’s find a way to win.”
Blashill likes his team when it plays Red Wings’ hockey, as he believes it did against the Coyotes.
What remains unclear is whether the lineups he has coached and now coaches in Detroit are up to it.
“I thought we wanted to be way faster in the neutral zone, have the attack mentality, get pucks behind them, pound on the fore-check, be quick and straight on the attack in the O-zone, and I thought we did those things.” he said.
“I think that will allow this team to create offense.”
In recent years, a few publications have reported the NHL has more mid-season terminations of coaches than the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball, and more of them result in improved records.
While the course does not seem consistent with the Red Wings’ more conservative approach to personnel, generally, one wonders what would have happened if the winless streak had continued.
If the Red Wings do not show some improvement this season under Blashill, he is undeserving of another year.
If they go on a long losing streak, the move might come during the season. But things would have to be particularly bleak.
And they should not hire Tippet.
He is a good coach, one of the most defensive in the recent seasons. But under Tippett the development of potential offensive stars like Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha might suffer.
The Big Three need to play defense and attend to a lot of details all over the ice. But Tippett demands obsessive defense, and it can needlessly restrain a young, creative player.
Blashill coaching at this juncture in the history of the franchise is part of long preparation.
Holland removed him from behind the bench, after Babcock hired him as an assistant, for head coaching experience in Grand Rapids.
There, Blashill coached eight of the 23 current Red Wings, including Athanasiou, Larkin and Mantha.
Nelson would provide similar familiarity for developing, young players. But one wonders if the 2017 Calder Cup winning coach in the AHL would get any more wins out of these Wings.
Barring a devastating losing streak or players ignoring Blashill, he is likely to finish the season. Without some improvement, however, it may well be his last.