Blashill: Red Wings adapted to forechecking game

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Left wing Tyler Bertuzzi is one of those Red Wings players whose speed is an asset in a forechecking game.

Detroit — The Red Wings have begun the process of transitioning to a hard, forechecking style, along with utilizing their speed, both items so important in today’s NHL.

Coach Jeff Blashill, expected to return for a fourth season, stated several times Saturday how the Red Wings are transitioning to a different way of playing the game.

But, with all this happening, Justin Abdelkader had to smile just a bit after Saturday’s season-ending game against the New York Islanders.

Abdelkader recalled an early conversation he had with Pavel Datsyuk, in the midst of the Red Wings’ playing their famed puck-possession style.

“It’s funny, but when I first came into the league with this team, it was more puck possession and I played with Pavel, and he said ‘don’t dump the puck in,’” said Abdelkader, a big smile crossing his face, while also attempting to emulate Datsyuk’s delivery. “So I said ‘OK, I won’t dump the puck in.’

“He goes, ‘you value the puck and you keep the puck because it’s so hard to get back.’

“So that was engraved in my head right away.”

But times change.

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That was another time, another era in the NHL. There were so many talented teams, the disparity between the teams was large, and the Red Wings had a lot of the talent.

In today’s NHL, there truly isn’t much that separates all 31 teams. Parity has taken over.

“The game is changing and it’s evolved for sure,” said Abdelkader, whose game is suited for such a style. “Most teams are playing that north-south game and you have to be skating and forechecking and getting pucks back.

“We’ve done a pretty good job, but that being said, you have to make sure that you’re being strong at the lines, your defensive blue line and their offensive blue line, you can’t turn the puck over.”

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Blashill has gradually been implementing this subtle shift this season, and feels the Red Wings have been adapting well to the change.

“In the past, it was bring it back and loop and do some things, and it was awesome,” Blashill said. “For a while, some of that was with the number of Russian players that were here and that’s the way they had grown up playing.

“Some of that was the league was so much different, and there was a huge disparity in the talent from one team to another.”

Blashill is confident the Red Wings have the personnel to play this style, and be effective with it.

Players such as Abdelkader, Tyler Bertuzzi, Darren Helm, Dylan Larkin and Luke Glendening, come to mind, who can play with speed, hound the puck, be physical, disrupt opponents.

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“New Jersey was the best hardest forechecking team we probably saw and they don’t have big, strong forwards, they have quickness,” Blashill said. “It’s become a real forechecking, hounding league in a lot of ways.”

Blashill didn’t feel the Red Wings were fast enough to play against last season.

But that’s changed this season.

“We tried to implement a much faster transition game, to try to make use of one of our assets — our speed,” Blashill said. “I don’t think enough coaches said last year we were fast. (But) I don’t know if there’s a coach now that doesn’t say our team is fast.

“Part of “fast” is playing fast, and we’ve learned to play way faster, and so part of that is willing to put pucks behind people and go forecheck a little bit more.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of that, trying to use our quickness, and that’s a positive.”

A young player like Bertuzzi, who seems well suited for this type of style, also gives the organization hope going forward.

“He’s a real good piece to a winning hockey team,” Blashill said. “He plays winning hockey. He’s extremely smart defensively, he has a very strong stick, he’s very strong on the puck.

“He’s hard and smart and has good skill and that’s a rare combination.”