December 7th, 2017
Red Wings in dire need of a coaching
change, but don’t expect a quick fix
By KEITH GAVE
For a generation of Red Wings fans, what is happening with their hockey club these days is unimaginable. The long losing streaks. The humiliating, lopsided defeats. Unspeakable. But fans of a certain age have seen this horror show before, and they can speak with some authority that it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.
Right. How can it get much worse than a home-and-home series with one of their oldest and greatest rivals and lose both games by a combined score of 16-4, including Saturday night’s 10-1 loss at Montreal? Stay tuned. Of course, the way the Wings are playing these days, that’s a big ask. And it speaks volumes in explaining all those empty seats in this inaugural season at Little Caesars Arena.
Worst of all, replacing the coach, which not only seems inevitable but suddenly imminent, comes with no guarantees. That said, it’s time. Probably well past time to make a change.
Clearly these Wings have stopped responding to Jeff Blashill, whose team has won just 10 of its 27 games this season, falling to 25th overall among the NHL’s 31 teams heading into tonight’s game against visiting Winnipeg – only the hottest, and maybe the best, team in the NHL right now.
The Wings look much more like a team vying for a lottery pick in the entry draft than one that will compete for the playoffs next spring. And I speak from the experience of covering a Red Wings team that was so bad it earned the first overall pick in the draft. (And they screwed that up, too.)
That was 32 years ago right about now, when after an unprecedented spending spree that brought in a new coach and nine new players the Wings got off to an 0-9-1 start,and never recovered. Harry Neale, the coach, didn’t survive long enough to celebrate the new year with his team. He was fired on Dec. 30, replaced by Brad Park, the Hall of Fame defenseman who proved to be colossally inept as a coach.
The Wings got worse. The highlights of their season were the bench-clearing brawls and suspensions. With Joe Kocur and rookie Bob Probert, Detroit won a lot more fights than it lost. Fans showed up in droves to the Joe to show their appreciation.
Coincidentally, the highlight of this season so far might be Luke Witkowski’s suspension for returning to beat up more Calgary Flames players when they visited the Pizz-Arena on Nov. 15. Witkowski is serving a 10-game suspension for that indiscretion. (The Wings are 1-7 since then.)
The NHL game has changed a lot in the three-plus decades since then. And so have Red Wings fans, who no longer can buy a seat to a game for a measly $9.
But one thing that hasn’t changed one iota is the Ilitch family’s public image as represented by its sports teams. Chris Ilitch might be running the business after the passing of his father, but the Wings very much remain his mother Marian’s pride and joy. All that losing, especially after spending all that money, didn’t sit well with Mike and Marian in 1985, and I can only imagine not-so-subtle pressure she’s putting on her son to fix it – right now.
In other words, the future of this franchise is in Chris Ilitch’s hands. People turning to Ken Holland wondering about any options he’s exploring are asking the wrong guy. Holland, once considered one of the best general managers in professional sports, is now a lame duck – a guy in the last year of his contract, and quite likely the final year of service. At least in his post as GM.
So what now? Wait and see is all we can do. Wait. . . and wait, because if we learned anything at all about Chris Ilitch is that he’s pragmatic in the extreme. How long did it take him to fire Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, after all?
Now the Wings are in a similar situation, playing poorly and in desperate need of a new direction behind the bench and on the ice. But in this case, it’s a lot easier to change the coach than swap out a bunch of overpaid or aging (and in many cases both) players who are literally untradeable because of their contracts.
The smart money says Blashill, a serial winner until he arrived in Detroit to take charge of the Wings, has two games left to get his beleaguered team showing signs of a pulse. And that won’t be easy. Winnipeg and the St. Louis Blues, who visit Saturday afternoon, are two of the top five teams in the NHL.
If this losing streak hits nine, expect a change. But who? The Wings blew last season when they could have hired former Wings star Gerard Gallant, who wound up behind the bench in expansion Las Vegas, the surprise team in the NHL this season.
The short and quick answer at the moment is probably in Grand Rapids, where coach Todd Nelson is deservedly on a lot of short lists after winning the Calder Cup last spring. He has some NHL experience as an interim coach in Edmonton a few years ago, where he was passed over for the full-time job in favor of Todd McLellan, the former Wings assistant.
It would make sense to turn the job over to Nelson, if only for the sake of a much-needed change. Then let the new general manager decide who should coach this team. By then the Wings could be in possession of the first-overall draft pick in next June’s entry draft.
That’s how bad this season is shaping up. Unspeakable indeed.