Jeff Blashill has the Detroit Red Wings challenging for first place in the Atlantic Division these days, overcoming a slow start that had people wondering whether the Red Wings were on decline.
DETROIT – Jeff Blashill’s office at the Joe Louis Arena is spartanly decorated, but it’s interesting to note that on the shelf directly behind where he sits, there are pictures of Vince Lombardi and Abraham Lincoln. The former reminds Blashill what it takes to win, the latter reminds him of the importance of perseverance. But if you want to know what really makes Blashill tick, he suggests you read Desiderata, a poem written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann. The poem provides a guide for living well and includes the following passage:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Things are unfolding for the Red Wings and Blashill as they should. The Red Wings are challenging for the lead in the Atlantic Division and have overcome a slow start to emerge as a playoff contender. After tonight, the Red Wings will have played 22 of their first 34 games at home and face a gruelling second half of the season, much of it on the road. Things could go wrong, but the Red Wings always find a way to make it right.
And they’re doing it in a whole new world for them with Blashill behind the bench. If you close your eyes when you listen to Jeff Blashill speak, you’d swear the words were actually coming out of Mike Babcock’s mouth, especially when you hear him say the words “unbelievable,” “opportunity” and “challenge.” Their voices sound almost identical. They have the same nuances of speech, the same ebbs and flows in their inflections, almost identical cadence and an eerily similar vocabulary.
But this is not some sort of Stepford Wives scenario in Detroit, where coaches here are interchangeable and emerge from some marvel of genetic engineering. Blashill, in his first season coaching the Red Wings, is indeed his own man and his own coach. The Red Wings still play the same puck-pursuit style and focus on the possession game, but you don’t hear too many people walking around the Joe Louis Arena these days pining for the days of the Babcock era.
That’s because Blashill has done a great job in Detroit. When the Wings lost six of seven after winning their first three games of the season, there were rumblings that Babcock had left at the right time and that the Red Wings were finally – for real this time – on a precipitous decline. But here we are in mid-December and if the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens both lose tonight and the Red Wings beat the Devils, guess who will be in first place in the Atlantic Division?
“I could see signs as we were going through that process of losing five of six that we were coming out of it and getting better,” Blashill said, “but we weren’t good enough, that was just the reality. Why? I’m not sure. We play a game where we would like to go tape-to-tape out of our own end. We like to possess the puck out of our own end. That leads to turnovers and I think that was a growth process with the team.”
Well, it’s remarkable how much better the Wings got when Pavel Datsyuk and other veterans got back into the lineup, but there’s no doubt the Red Wings and Blashill have found their groove. That was to be expected from Blashill because he’s a hugely talented coach. He’s won championships in both the USHL and American League and in his only season in college hockey, took a moribund program at Western Michigan that had won nine games the previous season and got them into the Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship game and the NCAA tournament. And he has an impeccable track record of developing players for the Red Wings, players he’s now coaching in the NHL.
There are certainly some differences between the two. Blashill placed his trust immediately in rookie Dylan Larkin and the move has paid off. Babcock never altered his defense pairings, but Blashill has juggled them several times this season. But still, it’s never easy to replace a rock star. And you knew that as soon as the Red Wings hit a bump, the questions would begin to surface.
“I just walk in here and do the best job I can,” Blashill said. “That’s what I’ve done at every job I’ve been at. I don’t worry about who I replaced or other factors. I don’t think you can. It’s worked for me up to now. What can’t it work for me here, regardless of who I replaced? I don’t think I’m cocky, but I believe I belong here and I believe I can do a great job here.”
With that in mind, Blashill did not spend a lot of time during the early struggles worrying about being the first coach in 25 to miss the playoffs. He didn’t concern himself with the comparisons to Babcock and he wisely relied on his own instincts.
“I don’t spend time worrying about what bad things are going to happen,” Blashill said. “I worry about what it’s going to take to succeed. And I know that sounds like a little bit of bullsh–, but it’s not. Do I know that we might miss the playoffs someday? Yes? Do I know there are high expectations here? Yes. Do I know I’m a coach and at some point I’ll get fired? Yes. It’s fine. I’m at peace with all that.”