Published November 7, 2016
It’s been nearly 31 years since Brad Park got that phone call on Christmas Eve.
Park was analyzing NHL games on cable television, in his first year of retirement as a Hall of Fame defenseman—the last two years of his playing career spent with the Red Wings.
Park was asked by Wings owner Mike Ilitch if he had any suggestions for a new coach. Ilitch was getting ready to fire Harry Neale at the time.
Park told the pizza baron that he’d get back to him on that. But Ilitch had a follow up question.
“Would you be interested in coaching my hockey team?”
Park eventually took the job—the Red Wings were 8-23-4 at the time—but by the following June, he was out, the loser in a power struggle with GM Jimmy Devellano.
This is perhaps a relevant trip down memory lane.
The above story was the last time the Red Wings made a coaching change while a hockey season was going on.
I say it could be relevant because the seat of current Wings coach Jeff Blashill might be heating up.
The Red Wings dropped another game on Sunday, a 2-1 loss at home to Edmonton in which they managed just four shots on goal in the third period.
That makes the Wings 0-4-1 in their past five games, on the heels of a six-game winning streak that is looking more like a case of a blind squirrel finding a nut. Even bad hockey teams will rattle off a few wins in a row.
Of course, it’s possible—maybe even likely—that the Red Wings are neither as good as the winning streak nor as bad as the current winless streak.
They’re probably somewhere in between.
But what has been troubling—and it’s not just for a few games—is the Red Wings’ struggles holding third period leads in the Blashill Era.
That is how the Red Wings lose, more often than not. They have a lead in the final 20 minutes and then it vanishes.
That bugaboo cost them games last season, Blashill’s first as head coach in Detroit. And it’s rearing its head again this season, which is just 13 games old.
It’s a troubling sign.
The Red Wings don’t fire coaches mid-season, as established above. It’s not their style. In fact, they haven’t really fired coaches at all in the past 26 years, mid-season or otherwise.
Jacques Demers was canned in the summer of 1990. Bryan Murray, named as coach/GM to replace Demers, was stripped of coaching duties in 1993 so the Red Wings could hire the savant Scotty Bowman. But Murray wasn’t fired—he stayed on as GM.
Bowman coached the Red Wings for nine years before retiring. Dave Lewis wasn’t rehired after two seasons as Bowman’s replacement. Again, Lewis wasn’t fired, per se.
Mike Babcock, Lewis’ replacement, coached the Red Wings for ten years before leaving as a free agent for Toronto.
So the Red Wings, a franchise which used to give the ziggy to its coaches almost annually, has been a relatively stable organization in that regard since 1990. And I don’t expect them to fire Blashill during this season, either.
But it’s not unreasonable to look at Blashill sideways re: the Red Wings’ inability to hold third period leads, among other things.
When the coach starts to sound like a broken record about the team not being ready to play, it can become suicidal.
When the players repeat themselves in post-game comments about needing to be harder on the puck and tougher in the corners and wanting to win the little battles more, it becomes indicting—on the coach.
The Red Wings, from the coach to the players, sound the same refrain after every loss.
Pavel Datsyuk went back to Russia after last season, and one can only wonder if The Magic Man’s decision had as much to do with the direction of the Red Wings as it did with his being homesick.
Would Pavel had been as eager to go home if the Red Wings were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders?
Not all of this is Blashill’s fault, of course. GM Kenny Holland has been complicit, and more to blame, frankly.
But what is the team’s vision for the future?
Is it to be in rebuild mode and endure some painful seasons in the near future, or is it to reload on the fly and continue to squeeze into the Cup tournament every spring?
And how does that vision affect Blashill’s future with the Red Wings?
Blashill was brought in because he seemed to be the logical choice to replace the hard-nosed Babcock. I agreed with the choice—applauded it, even.
Blashill made sense because he’d been around the development of several of the current Red Wings players. They knew him, and they won with him in the American Hockey League. Blashill was an organizational man—a Red Wings guy.
But this is year two for Blashill, and it’s fair to theorize what the Red Wings want to be, especially heading into a new arena next fall, and whether Blashill fits that plan.
The number of third period leads lost and the feeble power play can be traced to coaching. And if it wasn’t for some scorching hot goaltending early on, the Red Wings’ record would be at least two games worse right now.
But all this could be forgivable if the Red Wings see themselves as a project—including the coach. Maybe everyone is expected to learn together, Blashill included.
But when I see the team play and I hear them talk after the games, I can’t help but wonder if a new coach—a non-Red Wing guy—could be in the offing next summer. Maybe the players like Blashill but don’t fear him.
The Red Wings don’t fire coaches mid-season. Not anymore.
And they probably won’t this season, either. But next summer, all bets on Blashill are off.