John Niyo and Ted Kulfan preview the 2018-19 Red Wings season. The Detroit News
Detroit — When Jeff Blashill peers down at his lineup card Thursday before the Red Wings' season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he’ll see the names of as many as a half-dozen rookies listed. Four of them on defense, perhaps.
“And that’s a lot of unknowns,” he admitted Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be great. It just means you’re not sure.”
The same might be said of Blashill as an NHL head coach, at this point. And as the 44-year-old bench boss heads into the final year of his contract in Detroit, with a roster in flux and a franchise in full rebuilding mode, nothing seems certain other than this: Blashill’s facing a stacked deck if he’s expected to take this team to the playoffs.
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The Red Wings begin the 2018-19 season with the longest odds to win the Stanley Cup — Las Vegas bookmakers have both Detroit and Ottawa pegged as 200-1 also-rans — and even the veterans in the dressing room will acknowledge that, as forward Thomas Vanek did Wednesday, saying, “I think you’ve gotta be realistic.”
“Do we want to make the playoffs? Of course,” Vanek said. “I think every team right now thinks if they play the right way, they have a chance. And they should think like that.”
But with all those rookies in the lineup — and nearly half the roster under the age of 25 — this isn’t a team built to win now. Or even next year, most likely. No, it’s a team that’ll rely on young legs, some emerging offensive talent, and the “60 Minutes of Hell” mantra Blashill spent all of training camp and the preseason drilling, just to stay competitive.
“We’re gonna have to be ready each and every night,” Vanek said, “because we’re not good enough to take a night off and win games.”
Postseason or else?
So how good do they have to be for Blashill to stick around? How many games do they need to win? Those are loaded questions without answers as the puck drops Thursday. (Henrik Zetterberg, the captain who just retired, will do the ceremonial honors, in case we needed another reminder of the challenge ahead.) And Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who signed a two-year contract extension in April, confirmed Wednesday that there have been no discussions yet about re-upping with Blashill.
“I want to get out of the gate and let’s get going,” Holland said.
So does Blashill, for that matter. And if you ask him about expectations, or how he’ll be fairly critiqued this season given the Red Wings’ new reality, he’ll look to pass instead of shoot.
“To be honest with you, it doesn’t matter how I’m judged externally,” said Blashill, who owns a sub-.500 career record (104-105-37) entering his fourth season in Detroit. “I can tell you from my own perspective, I’ll judge myself on, ‘Are we getting better?’ Are individuals getting better? Is the team getting better? Did we work and compete every day? And are we on the same page?”
Not coincidentally, that’s where he drew positive reviews from Holland last spring. And again Wednesday when the GM met with the media for a preseason luncheon.
“I thought the team played hard, they were organized,” Holland said.
And though that team went on to lose 27 one-goal games, missing the playoffs for a second straight spring and finishing with 73 points — the lowest full-season total for the Wings since 1990 — there was some tangible progress made by a core group of young players in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Andreas Athanasiou.
Now comes another wave, as recent first-round picks Michael Rasmussen and Dennis Cholowski earned roster spots this fall, joined by a surprise rookie in Christoffer Ehn and some others (Libor Sulak, Filip Hronek and Joe Hicketts) who’ll get a chance on the blue line due to injuries. Yet amid all that youth on display in Traverse City last month, there was something else that was hard to miss: The skating.
“That was as hard of a camp as I’ve ever been a part of,” said Frans Nielsen, the 34-year-old center beginning his 13th NHL season.
The most competitive, too, according to goalie Jimmy Howard, who’ll be fighting for time in net with newly signed backup Jonathan Bernier.
“In the past, you already knew who was gonna be on the team,” Howard said. “That was the difference.”
Indeed, in past years, we would’ve seen that final forward spot go to a veteran like Jussi Jokinen or Luke Witkowski instead of Ehn. We also would’ve seen Holland go out and sign some veteran defensemen rather than giving Cholowski or Sulak or Hronek a shot.
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At the same time, that shift in philosophy probably allowed Blashill more latitude as a coach making the kind of demands he made in camp, one that Holland and his front-office assistant, Kris Draper, both agreed was the best of his four-year tenure.
“Anytime you have team buy-in, that’s what you want as a coach and that’s what you strive for,” Blashill said. “And I think we’ve bought in. I think it shows the level of character in our room that they could be pushed as hard as we pushed them and they want that — they want more. That’s not every team.”
Whether that’s truly this team, time will tell. Things could get ugly in a hurry, no doubt. Still, there were a few encouraging signs in the preseason as the Wings went 7-1 and flashed some of the speed and tenacity Blashill hopes will be a hallmark eventually.
“They played hard, they played fast, they were in great shape,” Holland said, “and, hopefully, that’s going to bode well for our team as we head into the season.”
Before they do, Blashill says he’ll take a moment Thursday — sometime after the morning skate and before the opening faceoff at Little Caesars Arena — to “recognize how special it is to be the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings,” having been born here and raised in Sault Ste. Marie.
And as strange as it sounds, Blashill actually is tied for the fifth-longest tenure among NHL coaches with their current teams. So while there may be others around the league playing with a shorter fuse — Edmonton’s Todd McLellan and Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle come to mind — Blashill understands the speculation about his future.
He just isn’t going to spend any time worrying about it, a point that was driven home by his hiring of Dan Bylsma as an assistant coach this offseason.
Bylsma won a Cup and a Jack Adams Award in Pittsburgh, then became collateral damage after a two-year stint in Buffalo, where an endless rebuild continues. He’s also a Michigan native who grew up a Wings fan, and the 48-year-old Bylsma seems like a natural candidate for the top job in Detroit if it opens up. But after Bylsma joined Blashill’s Team USA staff at the world championships in May, Blashill said he had no qualms about asking him to fill a vacancy here.
“I really liked our interaction,” he said of Bylsma, who is tasked with fixing the Wings’ power play, among other duties. “I really liked the ability talk about things and debate, with the idea that we were trying to get to the best answer. He’s a guy who’s very strong in his opinions but he’s also very willing to listen and at the end of the day understands my position as well as anybody — that I’m the one ultimately that has to make that final decision. He gets that. He’s been in that seat.”
As for how hot that seat really is, that’s a debate for another day. Holland’s own future in Detroit is a bit cloudy with a short-term extension in his pocket and Steve Yzerman’s possible return looming. But for now, the GM is strongly in Blashill’s corner.
“It’s obviously been a difficult time from an organizational standpoint,” Holland said, referencing the departures of Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and the rest. “And I think Jeff Blashill has learned a ton. … I think that he’s a much better coach today than he was three years ago.”
Beyond that? That’s the great unknown.