April 8, 2016
Playoffs or not, Red Wings need to
address inexperienced coaching staff
By KEITH GAVE
Whether or not the longest playoff streak in North American professional sports comes to an end Saturday in Game 82 of an 82-game season, this much is undeniable: The Detroit Red Wings aren’t as good a hockey club as they were when the puck dropped on Oct. 9.
What a difference seven months makes. And a coaching staff.
But before we get into that, here’s where the Red Wings stand after getting blown out, 5-2, Thursday night at Boston, where they had a chance to clinch a playoff berth for the 25th straight season: The Wings and Boston are tied with 93 points each, but because Detroit owns the tiebreaker, it remains in third place in the Atlantic Division. Boston leap-frogged Philadelphia into eighth place after the Flyers lost in overtime to Toronto.
The Wings still control their own destiny. Win Saturday afternoon at New York against the Rangers and they’re in. Boston entertains Washington Saturday afternoon. Philadelphia plays Pittsburgh Saturday and at the New York Islanders on Sunday.
Physically and emotionally drained from a big win the night before, the Red Wings were no match for a desperate Bruins team that had to win. Detroit was a half-step behind all night long and managed just managed just 15 shots on goal.
Boston’s sense of urgency was apparent right from the drop of the puck. The Wings found themselves behind 2-0 before the game was three minutes old. There was still hope a glimmer of hope after Alexei Marchenko’s pass caromed in behind Bruins goalie Tukka Rask to make it 3-1 with 20 minutes to play. But Boston put to rest any thoughts of a Red Wings comeback with two goals in the first minute of the third period.
The Red Wings have been on desperation mode for the past three weeks, every game more important than the previous one. And they get no bigger than Saturday’s. But the truth is, it should never have come to this.
The Wings have, with remarkable consistency, suffered from an inexplicable lack of offense and a Keystone Kops defense. They’ve been guilty of way too many giveaways and careless turnovers, missed assignments on something as basic as the face-off, poor line changes, a woefully powerless power play and inconsistent goaltending.
Did we miss anything? Oh yes. How about something as basic as routinely not being prepared to start games, too often falling behind in the first period and having to play catch up? How about a
shameful lack of urgency when it’s needed most? Like in recent losses against imminently beatable teams like Columbus, Toronto, Philadelphia and Montreal.
Why has this happened? That’s the elephant in the room no one is talking about, isn’t it?
The Wings earned 100 points in Mike Babcock’s last of 10 seasons behind the bench in Detroit. And Jeff Blashill started with the same leadership and a better roster from top to bottom after the additions of free agents Mike Green and Brad Richards and rookie Dylan Larkin. With a win Saturday, the Wings will reach 95 points, but should have been threatening the 100-point barrier again rather than be in the mess they created for themselves these days.
This is on the coaches. Not one guy, but Blashill and his entire staff. I remain convinced that Blashill is the right man for the job. He’s a good coach. But he needs more help than has been available to him among his staff.
General Manager Ken Holland gave Blashill a lot of latitude in picking his coaching team in his rookie season. The only place Holland asserted himself was giving Tony Granato a healthy raise to stay in Detroit when he had offers to go elsewhere.
With a woefully inexperienced coaching staff, Granato’s presence behind the bench was thought to be critical. Blashill, 42, had just one year in the NHL as an assistant to Babcock before spending three successful seasons as the head coach in Grand Rapids, Detroit’s top minor-league affiliate. He brought along Pat Ferschweiler, 45, whose professional resume includes one season as Blashill’s assistant with the Griffins. Chris Chelios is listed as the other assistant, but works on a part-time basis.
The NHL is no place for on-the-job training – as we are witnessing with this club this season.
The coaching staff needs as much attention in the off-season as Detroit’s defensive corps. And I don’t mean changing the head coach. While Blashill is imminently qualified to coach in this league, it’s clear he needs more help than he thought when he took the job last June 9.
Granato’s departure after the season to take the head coaching job at the University of Wisconsin is precisely the opening Holland needed. And for the record, I’ll submit that replacing him with a full-time Chelios would be going from bad to worse. Chelios doesn’t have any serious experience coaching at any level. (Jim Bedard should be safe after 18 seasons as goaltending coach, but he, too, has a mess to sort out in goal for this team.)
Regardless of how this season ends, Holland and Blashill need to put up the Help Wanted sign and find some experienced men with proven NHL experience coaching successful specialty teams.
If they don’t, or can’t, and the Wings start next season the way they finished this one, look for Todd Nelson to get call up from Grand Rapids. Nelson’s work as the interim coach behind Edmonton’s bench late last season is looking better and better after another Oilers meltdown under Todd McClellan.
All this presumes that owner Mike Ilitch will have the patience to stay with a young, embattled coach. He did it with his baseball team, keeping Brad Ausmus when everybody in town wanted to show him the door.
Patience has never been much of a virtue around this hockey team, however. That also may be why we’ve had 24 straight seasons of Stanley Cup playoff hockey.
Note: Weather permitting – and snow is predicted – the Tigers celebrate their home opener at Comerica Park this afternoon. JC will be at Fred’s of Roscommon from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on April 8 for the Tigers’ home-opener at Comerica Park. Again, listeners can register to win more great prizes and Q100 T-shirts. Pregame starts at 12:40 p.m., with the first pitch at 1:08 p.m. Hear all the action on Y101.