Krupa: Blashill has been Red Wings’ rock amid decline

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit – Say what you will about Jeff Blashill, he is tough.

Whether it is having grown up the son of a Detroit police officer, enduring all the goals against and disappointment of his years striving to be a professional goalie, the fortitude of repeatedly uprooting his family in search of good coaching positions around the country or another reason, Blashill’s molded constitution gives him even keel.

As he grapples with arguably the most difficult tasks for a coach of the Red Wings since at least Steve Yzerman’s earliest days as a player, it is his prime attribute.

Things are not going well, by almost any measure.

The performance of the Wings, in decline for years, diminished again through the course of the third season of Blashill’s four-year contract.

But Blashill has not let them see him sweat.

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That is a bigger deal for the Red Wings than it might seem. Because, as looks nearly certain at this writing, Blashill will be back for the fourth year of his contract.

Owner Chris Ilitch announced Saturday Ken Holland will return for two years, at least. Holland said Blashill’s status will be made public Tuesday. But the 44-year-old coach is expected to return.

And that means he will need to tough it out for another season, perhaps more.

The Red Wings’ course for rebuilding the roster seems to navigate somewhere between defying long odds by trying to squeeze into the playoffs and more vigorous tactics that are somewhat short of blowing it all up.

Despite Blashill’s preseason assertion he was “100 percent certain” the lineup had a chance to make the playoffs, they were blatantly inconsistent for six weeks before a 1-5-5 stretch from Nov. 19 to Dec. 9 ended any debate about those chances.

If the team did not improve through the duration of the season, I wrote in November, Blashill did not deserve the fourth season of his contract.

I still believe that.

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Whether the Red Wings’ primary goal is making the playoffs or rebuilding — and their actions this offseason, not their words now, will be the gauge of which it is — after three seasons of decline under Blashill, it is time for another tillerman.

It is unlikely.

So, the fact that Blashill is tough enough to remains resolute throughout all the trouble is not only admirable, it is the resource he will likely most need in 2018-19.

Veteran hockey players and broadcasters who have been around the Red Wings for a long time, like Mickey Redmond and Chris Osgood, began remarking about Blashill’s composure in January.

With so many frustrating one-goal losses, the Red Wings’ penchant for finding ways to lose, and losing even when they have provided a huge effort, it could not have been easy.

And it is important for a roster in transition season-after-season since Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012, and that appears headed for more of the same for a few seasons, or more, to come.

Blashill may have not had the impact fans or the Red Wings had hoped.

Solution driven

But he is self-possessed. He is constant.

Ask someone like Martin Frk, the Red Wings forward who admirably clung to his roster spot this season despite Blashill’s concerns and constant demand that Frk play a better game.

“He is a strict coach,” Frk said.

Blashill is continually after the more inexperienced Wings, the only current hopes for the future, to “take care of the details” and to “play a 200-foot game.”

It is a difficult gig, and Blashill is tough.

“I think success in life has nothing to do with if you get knocked down,” he said. “It has to do with if you get back up.

“And that’s a constant day-to-day thing, I think. I’m just a big believer in that.

Blashill also said he tries to remain “solution based.

“I never, in my life, really spent much time complaining about what happened,” he said. “Let’s find a solution to how we can be better next time. That has just always guided me in coaching.

“So, for me, I’ve never worked a game in my life,” he said. “I love coaching.

“The Detroit Red Wings are my childhood team, and life’s pretty good. I keep a good perspective that way.

“That said, I think it’s real important to stay focused on — and you guys laugh about it, a lot — but let’s stay focused on process,” he said, referring to the media’s occasional reaction after having heard the word countless times, this season, and last.

“Because results follow process.

“They haven’t followed nearly as quickly as we wanted them to this year. But that doesn’t mean a good process won’t pave the way to better results down the road.

“I’m a big believer it will,” Blashill said.

“I think, if we do real similar stuff a year from now, we’ll have more victories. I think sometimes it doesn’t go your way, and you just keep plugging away.”

After his first season, he said he wanted the team to develop more of an identity, to play with pace and to be a more difficult opponent to face.

They are still in search of that identity.

It seems more distant now, than it did, then.

This year, he said his team could win, if it continually played its very best game.

But when an inconsistent club from seasons past played its best games this season, it too often lost, regardless.

Not so special

Specialty teams that seemed improved in late autumn deteriorated drastically. The Wings entered play in their last game against the Islanders 25th of 31 teams on the power play and 23rd on the penalty kill.

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Their goal differential of minus-37 ranked sixth-worst in the league.

Asked, at one point late in the season for his best argument for returning for his fourth season, Blashill said that Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi all improved.

He believes Larkin may well be an emerging star.

Coming out of the All-Star break, Blashill asserted that while no one around the league might believe it, he thought the Red Wings could still go on a run and challenge for the playoffs.

It seemed implausible, as a dreary 1-12-1 stretch from Feb. 28 to March 27 proved.

Through it all, Blashill talked about how doing the right things and inexperienced players improving will eventually turn things around. He urged fealty to the process.

“We’re trying to do two things here,” he said after the Wings blew a three-goal lead to the Blue Jackets April 3 and lost by a goal in overtime. “We’re trying to win hockey games with a lot of pride with that Red Wings winged-wheel on your chest, and we’re trying to build as players and a team towards the future.

“We need to make sure guys are playing the right way. Otherwise, you’re taking steps backward.

“We’ve got to make sure we keep taking steps forward.”

The Red Wings have had trouble making strides for threeseasons under Blashill.

They blew a 3-1 lead against the Islanders in their last game, Saturday, allowing a game-tying goal with 30 seconds left and lost another game in overtime.

Of their 52 losses in regulation or overtime, 26 were by one goal.

“That’s, to a large part, the league now,” he said. “We’ve been in tons of them the last three years.

“My first year, we won lots of them. Last year, we won a little bit more. This year, we didn’t win enough.

“What do you need to do?

“I think it’s just making plays at critical moments. I think that’s the big maturation process of some of our young players becoming elite players.”

Meanwhile, their coach is hanging tough.