Bultman: The Red Wings have to give their next coach a better chance

The Red Wings gave Jeff Blashill time. A lot of time. More time — seven seasons — than almost any NHL coach seems to get these days.

It was enough time to become the NHL’s second-longest tenured coach, until on Saturday, Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman decided it was time to come to an end. Nearly seven years after Blashill became Detroit’s head coach, the Red Wings announced they would not renew his contract with him.

Back in 2015, the Red Wings gave Blashill a chance. He was 41, coming off a whirlwind run between the USHL, NCAA and AHL, and Detroit gave him what he called, at his introductory news conference, “one of the most coveted jobs in the National Hockey League.”

The Red Wings gave him that job, and they gave him time. A lot of time. So much time that they had to have known what they weren’t giving him: much to work with.

After the Red Wings’ last-place season in 2019-20 came to a close, Yzerman practically said as much in explaining why he was bringing Blashill back despite the miserable campaign.

“I think it’s been a difficult position in his tenure here,” Yzerman said. “The Red Wings are in a rebuild, and have been for a while, and for the last two, three trade deadlines, the team has traded valuable players, good players, for future assets. And Jeff has, with his head held high and diligently, worked hard. He did a good job in coaching this team in a difficult situation throughout that, and I think it’s unfair to judge him based on our record at this time. And quite frankly, we need to improve the team for anybody to truly criticize or assess the coaching staff.”

All of that, frankly, was what Blashill signed up for, joining the franchise at the tail end of a storied 25-year playoff streak and at the beginning of what promised to be a painful rebuild.

And so the wheel would turn: bad on-ice results for the team leading to frustration with Blashill. Discussion on whether his time had run its course. All of it always ultimately (and often, fairly) countered by how kneecapped he had been by the constant subtraction year after year.

Saturday’s decision to let him go can be taken as a signal that after seven years (three of which were overseen by Yzerman), the general manager finally felt he had seen what he needed to. Blashill’s time, and his chance of him, had come to an end.

But as Yzerman sets out now to hire his replacement, he must also do everything he can to make sure the Red Wings’ next coach has a chance that’s built on much more than time.

Seven years later, the rebuild that hadn’t yet begun back in 2015 still isn’t over. Detroit’s first half of the 2021-22 season — and the arrivals of two stellar young talents — provided real reason for optimism when it came to the team’s direction.

In the end, that optimism set players and fans alike up for disappointment in the second half, but that doesn’t mean it was unfounded. The Red Wings are in a better spot than they were one year ago.

But they’re not out of the woods yet.

And that’s where the next coach comes in.

Barring a significant offseason of free-agent signings and trades, the Red Wings won’t enter the 2022-23 season as playoff favorites. The light at the end of the tunnel may be coming into view — thanks to new players like Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, with more young talent on the way — but whoever takes over as coach isn’t stepping into a ready-made situation like Gerard Gallant did this season in New York.

The new coach, in all likelihood, will get some patience. He’ll get time. But what he’ll need is for Yzerman and the rest of the Red Wings’ front office to start ramping up their aggressiveness soon. It doesn’t have to be instant — Detroit’s long-term picture is still the most important — but the momentum that comes with hiring a new coach is a valuable opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.

That momentum was on display in several places across the league already this year. It was there in Vancouver, which arose after bringing in Bruce Boudreau. It was there in Montreal, which got a lot more exciting after adding Martin St. Louis. And it’s there in Buffalo (although it technically began last season) with Don Granato.

Not one of those teams made the playoffs this year, but every single one of them exited the season with a feeling of progress under their new coach — because they actually made some.

It didn’t mean those teams stopped thinking about their rebuilds. Buffalo, in fact, traded the player that once upon a time was at the center of his long-term vision in Jack Eichel. But when it did so, it also added pieces that could help in the present. Those players — Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs — and their contributions helped make sure the Sabers didn’t simply spin their wheels, even though they still didn’t make the playoffs. They moved forward.

Yzerman has a lot of credibility in Detroit, for reasons that are well-earned. He has proved his bona fides of him as a winner on the ice, and he’s proved them as an executive in constructing the league’s two-time defending champs in Tampa Bay. As a result, he’s going to continue to get plenty of patience. As he should.

But now that he’s taken the step of moving on from Blashill, it’s fair to expect him to make sure the next coach has a chance to build some momentum of their own — not just from the boost of their new face and voice in the locker room , but because they have the pieces to execute a vision and actually have it lead somewhere. The depth to not ask everything of their young stars.

It won’t all translate at once, as Buffalo can surely attest. The Sabers have changed coaches six times in the last nine years, presumably because they expected more than each new hire could ultimately deliver. And in that sense, it’s a credit to Red Wings management that they understood Blashill’s reality all these years, giving him time until they could no longer justify it.

The chance they now have, though, is not just to hire a new coach. It’s to start taking the steps that will, eventually, lead to a point where wins and losses should decide their coach’s future.

In fact, they may have just taken the first one.

(Photo by Jeff Blashill: Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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