Kulfan: Red Wings' youth development made decision to extend Blashill an easy one

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Coach Jeff Blashill's role as a teacher has worked in terms of developing young players.

Detroit — When you look at the Red Wings’ record, it’s fair to be curious.

The Red Wings are about to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season. There have been stretches during that span where the hockey hasn’t been very good and the team hasn’t been fun to watch.

You concentrate on the results and, yes, the decision to bring back coach Jeff Blashill makes you wonder.

But it’s not necessarily about the wins and losses. It hasn’t been for a large part of Blashill’s time here.

When analyzing management’s decision to agree to a two-year contract extension with Blashill, it’s important to see if the young players are progressing.

Are they developing into key cornerstones for the future?

The answer, clearly, is they are.

The youngsters are getting better. Have been, actually, over the past few seasons.

“When I look at the development of our young players, as we’ve gone through this rebuild, they’ve all improved,” said general manager Ken Holland Tuesday, while announcing Blashill’s extension.

►Dylan Larkin has a team-high 32 goals and his leadership on and off the ice has spawned the belief he is the team's next captain. Larkin is becoming a superb two-way center, inching into the NHL's elite.

►Andreas Athanasiou has reached the 30-goal mark along with 52 points, both easily career highs, and is playing with increasingly more control and maturity on the ice.

►Anthony Mantha has 22 goals and 23 assists, 45 points, while having missed 15 games this season. He had 48 points in 80 games last season. Mantha gradually is showing the impact player he can be.

►Tyler Bertuzzi has rocketed to 44 points (19 goals) after totaling just 24 points (7 goals) last season.

►Young defensemen Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski, at varying points of the season, have shown the talent to be important pieces of the lineup.

►Recent first-round draft picks Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina both had opportunities with the Wings this season — Zadina has spent the majority of the season in Grand Rapids — and will have opportunities in training camp for larger roles. But Blashill has been adamant that both youngsters will have to earn their spots.

The growth  on the roster has been apparent. Now, it’s up to Blashill to continue keeping the arrow upward.

“Even in the best of days it took a long time to get over the hump here because it is a growth process,” Blashill said. “I just think with our players being in those spots, they’re learning. Now we have to take the next step, take the next step turning those losses into wins.

“I would also say the more guys that can get into that mix, who can help you win games, that’s the best way to become consistent. The teams that are most consistent are the teams that are the deepest in talent. Through the number of draft picks we’ve had, through the number of good players that are starting to come through the organization, the more depth we have, the better chance of being consistent.”

Despite the losing, there have been no public rifts between players and the coaching staff. There is mutual respect, and the lines of communication appear open.

Players genuinely appear to enjoy playing for this staff.

“He loves the game and that’s one of the biggest things I respect about him,” Larkin said. “He wants to be better, he wants to be better as a person and a coach.

“Really, everyone in here respects him and he respects everyone. We’re happy to have him back.”

Heading into Tuesday’s game against Pittsburgh, the Wings are 135-143-47 under Blashill. But that is due largely to a roster that hasn’t complemented the blossoming young players well enough.

Still, the Wings are rarely out-worked in games, and with 43 one-goal games, have been blown out in games.

‘The record would indicate that we haven’t had a very good year, (but) we lose a lot of games really close,” Holland said. “We’re still learning how to win. The team is being taken over by the young people, which is the direction we want to go.”

That direction has never been apparent than this season.

You look around the locker room and so many of the familiar names are gone, or will be within the next few seasons.

This is a young team that could still be getting younger.

And it’s a team that appears to be getting better. Largely behind the work of Jeff Blashill.

“As I watched the year go on, the players responded to Jeff,” Holland said. “He was playing the kids, the kids got a lot of minutes. The young players were getting better.”


Twitter: @tkulfan