Detroit — Some intriguing decisions regarding the Red Wings are about to be made, including the one that might have the most importance.
Who is going to coach the Wings next season?
After Saturday’s 5-4 overtime loss in Columbus ended what was a promising yet another losing season, the future of coach Jeff Blashill becomes front and center for the immediate future.
General manager Steve Yzerman and Blashill are likely to discuss Blashill’s future within the next day or two.
Blashill has coached the Wings for the last six seasons, missing the playoffs the last five years. Blashill has a lifetime record of 172-221-62, and is the third-longest tenured current NHL head coach, presiding over a difficult Wings’ rebuild.
After Saturday’s loss, Blashill, a native Michigander, sounded like a man who would love to be part of the Wings’ promising future.
“I’ll sit down with Steve and we’ll discuss things,” Blashill said. “I’ve been a Red Wing for a long time, and certainly I’ve enjoyed every second I’ve been part of this organization and we’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
Nobody knows for certain what Yzerman will decide. But the general feeling within the organization, and outside, leaned toward Blashill being retained on a short-term deal, given how competitive the Wings were the latter half of this shortened 56-game season, how hard they played under Blashill, and the fact Blashill really hasn’t had a competitive roster to work with the last two, or three seasons.
Certainly coming off a terrible 2019-20 season, the Wings were noticeably better on the ice this pandemic-shortened season.
“Not really comparable,” said Blashill, comparing this season to last. “We were a much improved hockey team from a season ago, both in how we play the game and our habits and structure. Especially down the stretch, with a number of young players being thrust into significant roles, it’s not even comparable (to last season).
“In terms of the arc of the organization, it’s starting to head in the right direction. Last year was a bad year for sure, and this year, again for me, it was totally different.”
The Wings finished seventh in the eight-team Central Division. Both the Wings and Columbus had 48 points, but the Wings had one more regulation victory than the Blue Jackets (19-27-10, to Columbus’ 18-26-12).
The Wings were 15-15-7 following a 4-12-3 start as COVID-19 ravaged the lineup of five regulars.
And late in the season, with scoring forwards such as Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri and Bobby Ryan injured and unavailable for the season, the Wings still went 6-4-4 over their last 14 games with a depleted lineup.
Blashill went back to former Wings’ coach Mike Babcock’s favorite sayings about “steadying the rudder” and not losing control of the season and falling into lengthy losing streaks — other than the COVID-19 stretch, when the Wings lost eight consecutive games and 13 of 15, sinking their season one week into the schedule.
“We lost our way in that one stretch where we were missing those guys, but when we look where we are, (eight) games under .500, somewhere in that range, ultimately that COVID stretch was a tough stretch for us,” Blashill said. “We did a real good job of responding when things went bad. It’s not whether you get knocked down, you’re going to get knocked down. It’s whether you continuously get back up, and our group continuously got back up.
“There’s a lot of good men in that room. I can say on a night to night basis we worked and competed to the nth degree and that’s something I’m proud of our group.”
When the Wings did have major falls — a bad loss in Tampa (Feb. 3), and a pair of 7-1 losses to Nashville quickly come to mind — the Wings always responded with a renewed energy.
“We never really let it snowball too much, which was good,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said. “After those games, we were able to come back and get wins (two short winning streaks after the Nashville losses) or compete hard and have a chance to win instead of just laying down and going into long losing streaks.
“That was a positive for us.”
Yzerman will have several decisions to make regarding Wings’ unrestricted free agents.
Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, forwards Luke Glendening, Ryan, Sam Gagner, Darren Helm and Valtteri Filppula, and defenseman Marc Staal are UFAs whose Wings’ futures will have to be decided.
Of that group, Bernier and Glendening appear to be near certain of returning, given their performance and importance within the roster.
Gagner, Ryan and Filppula all made positive influences on younger players, but it might be difficult to bring back more than one, or at the most, two, of those forwards back, with Gagner the likeliest the Wings will work to bring back.
Staal had an underrated, effective season, and could be a valuable asset next season with heralded young defenseman Moritz Seider coming aboard, and a young defenseman like Dennis Cholowski or Gustav Lindstrom earning a lineup spot.
The Wings’ nucleus continued to progress this season, there were a few subtle changes, and more recent draft picks will be incorporated into the lineup next season.
Forward Jakub Vrana was acquired for Anthony Mantha at the trade deadline, and had 11 points in 11 games with eight goals, and looked like an explosive goal-scorer nearly every game.
Forwards Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen were two recent first-round picks who continue to develop and make favorable impressions in their all-around games.
And, next season, Seider, one of the top prospects in the NHL, is likely to slip into the lineup — as well as possibly last year’s No. 1 pick, forward Lucas Raymond — further deepening the roster.
The rebuild should take another interesting turn next season with the talent infusion.
“A lot of our younger players took strides this year,” DeKeyser said. “It gives you a positive outlook for the future.”
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