Blashill earns high marks but has no NHL experience

Gregg Krupa, The Detroit News

Detroit — Steve Yzerman has hired two coaches for his Lightning since becoming the general manager five years ago.

Both men were a lot like Jeff Blashill, the coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins who is the heir apparent to Mike Babcock as coach of the Red Wings.

Neither of Yzerman's selections had any experience as head coach in the NHL. But both were highly touted AHL coaches with high marks for intelligence and common sense in hockey and, indeed, life.

They were said to be great communicators. Both had won, and won quickly, at nearly all levels, as a coach.

And they won in the AHL even when their parent clubs kept calling their best players up to the NHL.

Universally, hockey people predicted success for both coaches at the NHL level.

One, Jon Cooper, succeeded to the degree that the Lightning are giving a favorite for the Stanley Cup, the Rangers, a heck of a time in the Eastern Conference Final, after eliminating both the favored Canadiens and the upstart, stubborn Red Wings.

The other, Guy Boucher, is now coaching Switzerland.

Yzerman fired Boucher in March 2013 with his once promising team, believed to be on a sharp upward development trajectory, in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

Cooper is touted as a model for an NHL coach: cool, cerebral and quietly confident, with experience in junior hockey and in what is touted by many as the best developmental league around, the AHL.

By the time of his demise, Boucher's "creativity" was perceived as dubious strategizing, likely unworkable in the NHL. His "character" was described as stubborn. His approach to discipline became failing to communicate with his players.

Contrast and compare Cooper and Boucher, as Ken Holland considers promoting Blashill from the AHL to the NHL.

Man of many talents

Blashill is unanimously considered an NHL coach in waiting.

He is said to be a master communicator. He is said to be a master of X's and O's, even as they have been characteristically played by the Red Wings, now, for a generation, and especially for the past 10 years under Babcock.

It also is true that Blashill is familiar to nearly all of the Red Wings as a coach and about half of them as a head coach.

When he opens the door on his first day in as a head coach, whether in college, juniors or the minor league, it is as if Disney's Tinker Bell flies in with him and spreads around some pixie dust. Seemingly by magic, his teams begin winning.

Success in Grand Rapids

With impressive performances by Teemu Pulkkinen, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Bertuzzi and others, Blashill may well have the Griffins poised for a second Calder Cup in three seasons, as they waited Wednesday night to learn their opponent in the semifinal round.

He is even the son of a former Detroit police officer, born in the city and raised in the Upper Peninsula.

And he is, perhaps, the brightest prospect for an NHL coach in all of the minor leagues in North America.

Blashill may even exceed the promise of some former NHL coaches.

But, there is one thing Jeff Blashill has never done: He has never coached in the NHL, as the head man behind any bench.

And there is the rub.

When it comes to discerning whether Blashill will successfully coach the Red Wings, the plain fact of the matter is: No one knows.

His qualifications are as long as three periods of overtime. Bu is he a Cooper, or is he a Boucher?

Will he arrive and win, immediately, here, too — with a roster that Babcock described pointedly as needing significant work, after Cooper's team denied them a berth in the conference semifinals?

Or does he come, have mixed success and eventually move on to the next post, with the Wings left grappling with a still-redeveloping roster a few years from now?

Or does he simply fail?

Despite his considerable accomplishments and long list of positively glowing references from a raft of "hockey people," the fact of the matter is no one knows how Jeff Blashill would do.

And so it is that Ken Holland says that rather than announcing Blashill as the next coach, he wants to take some time to discern the future.

As Blashill and the Griffins compete for the Calder Cup, Holland says he will pick a date, with an eye toward avoiding unnecessary disruptions, to drive west on I-96 "to talk to Jeff."

It also is likely Holland will at least consider other candidates with NHL experience. If the Blues and Ken Hitchcock and the Bruins and Claude Julien end their relationships, the two NHL veterans would be possibilities.

So is Dan Bylsma, the former coach of the Penguins and the 2014 U.S. Men's Olympic team.

But the strong likelihood remains that the "NHL coach in waiting," as Blashill is described by Holland, is named the 27th coach of the Red Wings by sometime in June, if not before.

He is said, by his players and others, to sound just like Babcock, without the pyrotechnic intensity.

Questions remain

Blashill has the words, but not quite the passion.

Will players like Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Kronwall respond to him as they responded to Babcock?

Will Blashill enjoy the same success in his NHL career as the new coach of the Maple Leafs?

The fact of the matter is, no one knows with anything approaching certainty.

The strongest sense, however, is that we are about to find out.