Blashill is aware Red Wings have to change their mix

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings exited the playoffs early, and the nature of Jeff Blashill’s considerable tasks changed instantly to preparing for next season.

He will have some time off, but not now.

“That, for me, happens in the summer,” Blashill said, as he worked in his office a few yards down a hallway from the empty Wings dressing room.

“When you end out and other teams are playing, you should still be working.”

He must help hire three assistants, watch the playoffs, identify possible trade and free-agent acquisitions, conduct exhaustive reviews of each player on his roster, travel to see his former club, Grand Rapids, in the American Hockey League playoffs, and review planning for next season.

Blashill is clear about some central elements of his focus.

The changes that can be achieved in the coming months should result in a lineup in which players are more enthused about their specific roles, with the intention that improved performance will follow and result in less shuffling of forward lines and defensive pairs, like the nearly constant, mostly unsuccessful search for improvement that marked the past season.

“I would like to have a much better feel for what our lines are going to be,” he said.

“And part of that, and part of what we’ve talked about as a group, is constructing a roster where guys are excited about their roles. Guys that are third-line players are excited to be third-line players. Guys who are fourth-line players are excited to be that.

“And you have the right guys getting the right minutes in the top six.

“This year, we just had probably too many similar players that I don’t think we ever found the best combinations for.”

Wearing a gym suit and athletic shoes, for a half hour, Blashill discussed the state of affairs of the storied NHL franchise he inherited from Mike Babcock after a decade, 11 months ago.

A lot to fix

The lineup ended up being a combination of aging stars, whose wear from long service suddenly seemed more evident, and young guys Blashill integrated more swiftly than his predecessor before making hard judgments about how to use them.

It never quite meshed.

A better performance might come through a more stable lineup, requiring some different personnel.

Is it possible, realistically, in one offseason?

Arguably, questions propound in a volume larger and more consequential than or any Wings coach in a quarter-century.

One issue Blashill said was whether the staff could improve.

The Red Wings announced Monday that goaltending coach Jim Bedard will not return and assistant Pat Ferschweiler will have other responsibilities. Assistant Tony Granato is the coach at Wisconsin.

Another issue is the roster.

“What players have we identified that we think can help take that next step and become go-to players?” he said. “What players can we potentially target to go out and get?

“I just know there’s no easy fix.

“To a large degree, our roster we have right now will have to play better to gain the traction we want.”

The players Blashill said were most affected by the lineup not knitting into a whole were Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist.

Slotted for the third line, with Riley Sheahan at center, Blashill said early that if they clicked as a third line it could be the best in the NHL.

But they regressed, and all the lines failed to produce enough offense.

“We had guys on the third line who wanted to be top-two line guys, and we had so many players in that third spot that we didn’t have enough excitement for the roles that everybody was in,” Blashill said.

They took “a lot of heat” for their lack of production, he said, while their coach played them fewer minutes.

“I think if guys had a beef on ice time, for me, it would be Tatar and Nyquist more than anybody else,” Blashill said.

Dylan Larkin, with his surprisingly strong performance, chewed up some of those minutes, and veteran free-agent acquisition Brad Richards did, too, Blashill said.

It also discouraged more playing time from Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha.

The need to balance a lineup, which he faces as coach, was thrown off by a lineup of similar players. Hence, Holland’s assertion immediately after the season the roster requires more diverse talents.

Next season, Blashill said, the younger guys might play more.

He showed far more readiness to use young players than Babcock. But after inserting Alexey Marchenko into the lineup, going with the younger goaltender, Petr Mrazek, and calling up Athanasiou and Mantha, some criticized him for not playing the younger guys more.

“The best chance for growth by far is for some of these young players to take the next step from being nice support players to being elite players who can put the team on their back the way Pavel (Datsyuk) and Z (Henrik Zetterberg) have for a number of years,” he said.

“They have to be given the opportunity to do that while earning that opportunity. That’s going to start in training camp.

“The young guys that play the best are going to have expanded roles because that’s the best way for us to have growth as a hockey team, especially if Pavel decides he’s not coming back.”

Growth from within

With Datsyuk likely leaving and the team hard-pressed for free agents and trades amid concern the crop of talent in Grand Rapids available for harvest is not plentiful, is a coach headed to his sophomore season concerned the franchise is in decline?

“I don’t think we’re any different than teams that are playing in the second round, by any stretch,” Blashill said. “But I would also say that I don’t think there’s huge differences between a number of us who made the playoffs and a number of teams that didn’t.”

What he seeks is what he mentioned a lot during the season, modest improvement that makes the Red Wings a solid contender

“If we do that, we have a legitimate chance to make a long playoff run,” Blashill said. “If we don’t do that, we’ve got a legitimate chance to miss the playoffs.

“I think it mostly has to do with internal growth. It’s the need for us to maximize our players and not have guys who have down years.

“So I’ll take that upon my shoulders.

“It might be some change from external sources in trades or free agency. It might be maximizing our coaching staff.

“We’ve got to find those ways to be a little two percent better, because the differences between going on a long run and missing the playoffs is miniscule in today’s NHL.”