Wings’ Blashill ‘100 percent’ confident of playoff return
Plymouth — Jeff Blashill strode into USA Hockey Arena like a hockey coach looking for some wins.
Fresh from a morning of work in his office in the Red Wings dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, Blashill seemed to churn with purpose. Animated, he did not so much sit for an interview as seize the opportunity to talk about the team, which debuts in two months in preseason.
The intensity of the Wings’ first season out of the playoffs, and last in its old home, ebbed. But other than a tan and summer clothes, judging by the coach, the pursuit of better performance remains hot.
Blashill said he thinks Trevor Daley, a free agent who played for the reigning two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins, will provide a significant boost to a needy defensive corps.
He said he has no concerns about the coming performances of goalie Petr Mrazek, whom the Wings left unprotected in the NHL Expansion Draft, or Tomas Tatar, who entered salary arbitration Thursday — the first time since 1995 the Red Wings have gone through arbitration with a player.
Blashill’s confidence the Red Wings return to the playoffs is “100 percent, absolutely.”
“I do think (general manager) Ken (Holland) did a good job of making our team better with what we did in the offseason here,” Blashill told The News in an exclusive interview earlier this week.
“They’re not big splashes. I don’t think big splashes necessarily always make the difference.
“I think there is a great chance to make our team a little bit better. Now, let’s go to work once we get to camp.”
Blashill, who is headed toward his third season at the helm, started the offseason in a way he said he wanted, “continuing to coach competitive hockey” at the World Championships in Germany and France.
“We finished too early, in April,” he said of the Wings.
He had the chance to spend time with his wife, Erica, afterwards in Paris.
Blashill, who is of Irish descent, said he is also excited to travel to Ireland for the first time later this summer.
‘Not far away’
But time is spare for recreation.
“I was down at The Joe (Monday morning), just trying to get prepared for camp, and things like that,” said Blashill, who lives not far from USA Hockey Arena.
“But now I get a chance to go on a vacation with my parents and my siblings over to Ireland for about 10 days. So it should be a great, great trip that I’m really excited about; spending time with my family.”
At the end of Blashill’s second season that both he and Holland described as disappointing, they said the performance of the roster required a thorough review. Blashill said he, Holland and the staff considered lots of options.
Deals were proposed but not completed.
“It is not easy to improve your team drastically in ways other than internally,” Blashill said.
The imposition of a hard salary cap on personnel rules that provide for free agency leads NHL teams to lock up stars, long term. Then, they add a few second-tier players and fill the rest of the lineup with reliable support players.
The Red Wings are not revealing specifics, but they clearly evaluated any deal offered as not helpful, whether trying to acquire another player or trade up in the draft.
One trend may benefit the Wings, as they seek to dig out of a hole for the first time in a generation. Parity in the NHL, enforced by the collective bargaining agreement, means teams regularly bounce in and out of the playoffs.
“It’s so close, if you’re a team that’s out of it, you’re not that far away,” Blashill said.
It makes his evident excitement about Daley all the more substantive.
At least eight teams pursued the puck-moving, strong-skating defenseman, who played in the style for two seasons with the Penguins to which the Red Wings aspire.
The Daley difference
The Wings need stars. But they also needed a solid, top-four defenseman. Daley, a Toronto native who turns 34 on Oct. 9, is deemed likely to play like one.
“Trevor was a high priority for us because we wanted to add a guy who could play top-four minutes, and specifically play top-four minutes on the right side,” Blashill said.
Daley is a left shot, but plays well on the off side.
“He’s a good hockey player who can help us be better,” Blashill said.
“He fits in to how we want to play. He can skate, which means he can help you break the puck out lots. The more you break the puck out, the less time you spend in your end.
“He can join the rush and create offense.”
Blashill said it does not benefit the team to talk about how he will use Daley or how the roster is going to shape up around him back on the blue line, and some things remain undetermined.
“He gives us lots of flexibility,” he said.
While Daley is not a No. 1 defenseman, the improved performance he can provide on the back end, and what his presence may spur from others, could help a lot, Blashill said.
“Just that little bit can make you that much better,” he said. “I think he’s going to bring tons to the team.
“The differences (between the Red Wings and other clubs) are not that big. They are minimal. So, if he helps us bring the puck out of our zone, if he helps us get the puck to forwards and into the zone on a more consistent basis, if he helps us out on offense by his ability to skate and join the rush and be active from the offensive blue line, we’re a better hockey team for certain.”
Daley will help Danny DeKeyser.
Through 316 regular season games, over four-plus seasons with the Wings, DeKeyser mostly defended against the opposition’s top line with Niklas Kronwall.
But last season, before he reached the 300-career mark considered the standard for the preparation of most NHL defensemen, DeKeyser was asked to do the same as leader of the top pairing.
“It put a ton of responsibility on Dan,” Blashill said. “Now, I don’t think it’s responsibility that he can’t handle when it’s a team effort.”
Daley will “help spread the load across our pairings, so it doesn’t have to be one guy or one pairing every night.”
While quite a bit of attention in the offseason fell on Mrazek and Tatar, Blashill mostly shrugged it off.
Coaches throughout the sport say they consider the business side necessary and unfortunate. Regardless, professional athletes should arrive prepared to perform, and Blashill said he has no qualms about either player.
“I never, ever begrudge anybody trying to get as much money as they can when they start out on contracts,” he said. “I did, as well.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s just part of what happens. The fact that it’s happened two years on a row, I think it’s situational.”
Mrazek went to the deadline for arbitration last season before signing a deal that came from hard bargaining. Then, he had a difficult, inconsistent season after having been declared the Wings’ No. 1 goalie.
“Adversity is a good thing,” Blashill said. “Adversity, when you work through it, makes you stronger.
“I believe Petr will come out, with the adversity he has gone through, stronger, more prepared, a better-in-execution goaltender than he was before. I think that’s what adversity does.
“I think Jimmy (Howard) went through adversity. I think he came out stronger.
“I think Petr’s going to do the same thing.”
Blashill also said the negotiations are unlikely to affect Tatar’s performance.
“I think every guy in our locker room knows that Tomas is a winner, he’s a great teammate that our guys love,” Blashill said. “He comes to work every day, he brings lots of things to the table.
“I’ve got tons of belief in him. His teammates have tons of belief in him.
“All that will be done by the time the seasons starts, and we won’t even talk about it.”