Niyo: Red Wings need Blashill to find his voice

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill keeps an eye on his players during a morning skate.

Detroit — The boss obviously isn’t changing. The roster doesn’t look dramatically different, either, with one notable exception.

So as the Red Wings drop the puck on another season Thursday night, beginning right where they left off a year ago — as a team that still appears to be trapped by its past, clinging to that cherished 25-year-old playoff streak — it’s incumbent somebody is willing to change.

If the Red Wings are going to make some progress instead of just making the playoffs — if they’re going to truly reshape their identity with so many familiar faces and too many repressive contracts — somebody’s going to have to act progressively. And that somebody needs to be coach Jeff Blashill, who is promising he’ll be different, and better, after learning some tough lessons and weathering some inevitable criticism as a rookie NHL bench boss a year ago.

“It’s tough, coming into an organization where you’re expected to win right away,” said Justin Abdelkader, the newly elected alternate captain for the Red Wings. “A lot of new coaches come in and are rebuilding and there’s no pressure on you right away.”

Not so in Detroit, where Blashill replaced arguably the league’s most successful coach in Mike Babcock, a domineering presence who’d spent a decade here calling many of the shots.

It wasn’t easy for Blashill to find his voice, especially when it genuinely sounded a lot like that of his predecessor, or when the other voices in the Red Wings dressing room carried. And it won’t be much easier now, unless Blashill really means what he says and is prepared to act on it. This meritocracy he has talked about the last several months sounds good in practice, but how will it play out in the game?

“First off, it’s always easier to say than to do,” Blashill admitted Wednesday, on the eve of the opener at Tampa Bay, where last spring’s postseason ended abruptly in five games. “There’s lots of things that we can talk about it, but you have to follow through on that.”

Taking another step

So we’ll see what follows a frustrating offseason for Red Wings fans, as a first-round playoff exit proved to be aging star Pavel Datsyuk’s swan song, and the entrenched general manager then hit all the old, sour notes as he patched holes with more puzzling decisions.

It wouldn’t be fair to say the fans wanted Steven Stamkos and instead they got Steve Ott, but that’s certainly the way it felt to some this summer. And while Ken Holland’s free-agent signings of Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek should pay dividends, the rest seemed like a muddled mess, or at least a mixed message. There was no trade to upgrade the defensive corps, and no good explanation for the organization tossing away young prospects like Martin Frk and Teemu Pulkkinen on waivers this week.

But all of that is background noise now, as Blashill starts barking out line changes and filling out lineups and, frankly, trying to show everyone why the 42-year-old has been a successful head coach at every level, from the USHL to the college ranks and to the AHL, where he won a Calder Cup in Grand Rapids a few years ago.

“I think it will be different this year — a little more comfortable in all the areas,” said Henrik Zetterberg, the Red Wings captain. “He knows where he can push, he knows where he has to ease up a little bit. I thought the process last year was good. I think we can take another step this year.”

They can do it if Blashill refuses to tread lightly, that is.

He came in and tried to tweak Babcock’s relatively conservative system, activating the defensemen and pinching and prodding to create more offense, only to discover he didn’t have the talent to do it, particularly on the blue line.

But he compounded some of those issues with some of his own, acquiescing somewhat to the veteran leadership with outsized roles for veterans Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson, among others.

Zetterberg, for instance, played all 82 games, and averaged nearly 20 minutes playing time, despite posting the worst possession and production numbers of his career. He continued to log more power-play ice time than anyone on the team, yet finished the season with two power-play goals.

He admits now he “ran out of gas” after the All-Star break, and while he’s not lobbying for less ice time, “if (Blashill) decides that I need to play less or get some rest days I’m open to that.” He’ll also play on the wing this year, with last year’s rookie sensation Dylan Larkin taking over those duties.

Build on preseason

Beyond that, though, Blashill seems to have acknowledged some other mistakes, from his own staff — overhauled with assistants John Torchetti, Doug Houda and goaltender coach Jeff Salajko — to Tomas Tatar’s limited ice time to Brendan Smith’s helter-skelter usage. Tatar, who played less than Brad Richards or Luke Glendening last season, will start on a top scoring line with Nielsen and Zetterberg tonight, while Smith will see top-four minutes as well as some power-play time with Kronwall and his troublesome knee beginning the season on injured reserve.

The coach still is planning to use a fourth line that infuriates some, with Glendening centering Ott and Drew Miller while Andreas Athanasiou, a fan favorite whose advanced stats scream for a bigger role, sits as a healthy scratch.

But, Blashill has made a point both about utilizing this team’s forward depth and not being married to the status quo, or any sort of organizational caste system.

“We had a great, great preseason out of the Glendening line, but can they keep it up?” he said. “If they keep it up, they’ll keep playing. If they falter, then somebody goes in their spot. I’ve told our guys, they’re gonna be merit-based on playing time, and I’ve told our guys we’re constantly — every shift — trying out for ice time. And that’ll continue.”

It will have to, if this team is serious about moving forward, and Blashill is serious about following through on his own promise. Do what you say, and then maybe we’ll see what the Red Wings really have.

Red Wings at Lightning.

Faceoff: Thursday, 7 p.m., Amalie Arena, Tampa, Fla.

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: Lightning GM Steve Yzerman has worked wonders to keep his winning roster together for another run at the Stanley Cup, including re-signing Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. ... In April, the Lightning eliminated the Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs in five games. Tampa Bay’s victories were by one goal.

NHL postseason appearance streaks

■29: Boston, 1968-96

28: Chicago, 1970-97

25: St. Louis, 1980-2004

25: Detroit, 1991-present