Why Jeff Blashill should go

Published Dec. 2, 2017

The easiest way to dismiss the Red Wings is to say that they’re simply not good enough.

That would be a quick, nice and tidy way to wash your hands of them. On to the next topic!

It’s true that the Red Wings aren’t very good. They weren’t predicted to be very good before the season began, and after coming out of the gate with a 4-1 record, they’re proving the prognosticators to be correct.

They lack several top-flight defensemen. They struggle to score because they don’t have enough “finishers,” as they say in the hockey world. I like to call them “snipers.” Same thing. The goaltending can’t be trusted, no matter how much you’d like to believe in Jimmy Howard. They can’t win in overtime to save their souls.

All true.

But what’s the most damning about the Red Wings isn’t their lack of talent. It’s their lack of heart.

Same old tired refrain

“We have to fix it.”

“We have to clean that up.”

“We played stupid hockey.”

“We have to be better.”

These are the same, tired refrains pouring out of the dressing room from the players and the coach after the latest uninspired loss.

The Red Wings like to play 20 minutes of hockey per night. Sometimes they’ll surprise you and play 40. It takes them two games, at least, to cobble together 60 good minutes.

The 20 minutes they play may come in the first period, they may come in the second period, they may come in the third period. And it’s not even 20 consecutive minutes, necessarily.

The rest of the time?

“We have too many passengers,” is how the coach summed up a recent loss.

Jeff Blashill is trying really hard, I believe that. He’s tried calling out young Anthony Mantha. He’s tried withholding ice time from Andreas Athanasiou and Dylan Larkin. He’s tried juggling lines, until he stopped. He’s implored his club, via the media, to step it up.

Nothing’s really worked.

Blashill, to his credit, isn’t delusional. He didn’t arrive at training camp at Traverse City trying to sell the fan base a bill of goods about his hockey team. He didn’t portend that the Red Wings were a playoff team—not even a no. 8 seed. He didn’t take the “Why not us?” mentality that some coaches use when their players aren’t as talented as others in the league—a smoke and mirrors tact to get them to believe in themselves.

Blashill, from the jump, warned anyone who would listen that the Red Wings would have to work their collective asses off to get every stinking point they could muster this season. He knew he wasn’t coaching the 2002 Red Wings.

It’s fair to wonder if everyone was listening to the coach’s warning except the players.

Related image

Veteran players free from Blashill’s wrath

I’m not usually one of those “fire the coach” types, especially mid-season. But firing the coach mid-season is a professional sports fetish. And I’m getting close to advising the Red Wings to break the glass and reach for the alarm.

The Red Wings haven’t sacked a coach mid-season since they released poor Harry Neale from his bondage the day before New Year’s Eve in 1985, replacing him with the ill-equipped Brad Park.

In fact, the team hasn’t even canned a coach, period, since they didn’t renew Dave Lewis’ contract after two seasons of following in Scotty Bowman’s skate steps, in the summer of 2005.

But how many times do we have to hear Blashill and his players say the same thing, loss after loss?

Well, what would you have them say, you might ask me.

Good question. Which is why the coach should be on the hot seat.

If the refrain is the same, and if it seems to center around effort and loss of focus during games—which it does, then whose fault is that?

I notice that Blashill has tried a lot, but he hasn’t tried calling out any of his veterans. Instead, he’s picked on poor Mantha, a 23-year-old kid who’s still trying to grow into his body, let alone grow into a consistent NHL player. The coach has picked on Larkin and Athanasiou.

Free from scourge has been anyone over the age of 25. I find that odd.

I understand the desire to challenge the kids and give them a baptism by fire into the ways of the National League. But that’s only who Blashill has publicly called out. I haven’t seen any reduction of ice time from players who have more than three years’ tenure in the NHL. For example, I haven’t heard Blashill say—not once—that Justin Abdelkader needs to step it up. And Abbie has been a passenger too often since inking his big contract a couple years ago—a contract that I endorsed.

I haven’t seen Blashill park Jonathan Ericsson’s butt on the pine despite one goofball play in his own zone after the other.

I haven’t heard Blashill wonder where his veteran leadership is.

It’s easy to hold young players’ skates to the fire. And it’s fine to do so, to a degree.

The Red Wings aren’t very good. That’s true. But they also don’t bring forth a total effort very often. That’s true, too.

Too much bad, unfocused hockey

The other night against the Canadiens at Little Caesars Arena—their new home and where they rarely win—the Red Wings played a decent first period then came out for the middle stanza in a fog. You half wondered if they consumed a huge meal in the dressing room during the intermission.

The Canadiens, who haven’t been world beaters this season and who were missing some key players, looked like the Firewagon Hockey Habs of the 1950s or 1970s. They skated circles around the dazed Red Wings.

The reporters needn’t have bothered to enter the dressing room afterward for quotes. They only needed to cue up their saved recordings from any game of their choosing this season.

Jeff Blashill in his third season of coaching the Red Wings. He’s following a tough act in Mike Babcock, but too often, the team hasn’t responded to Blashill. It may not be his fault. But when was the last time a coach got fired because things were expressly his fault?

Country Club culture

The Red Wings appear to need a new voice. They appear to need a swift kick in the hockey pants. It’s fair to theorize that too many “key” players don’t respect the coach as they should.

The Red Wings right now are victims of their own winning, Kumbaya culture. The culture where everyone is a Red Wing for life and gets a job after their playing days are done, should they want one—even the fourth line players. The culture where no one gets fired and pluggers like Luke Glendening get awarded fat contracts. The culture where there’s no true fear for your job. The culture that merely points to the Winged Wheel on the sweater and thinks that’s enough. The culture where you merely promote the minor league coach instead of conducting a real search.

The Red Wings are run like a country club in a league that requires a less privileged atmosphere from time to time.

You can’t only call out the kids while the veterans get off scot-free, for example.

Since this is a culture issue, the coach can’t solely be at blame. Culture starts at the top of an organization, not at the middle.

So what I’m proposing isn’t likely.

I’m proposing that the Red Wings let Jeff Blashill go and look for a coach—outside the organization with zero ties to the Red Wings (not even a fan of the team as a kid)—who won’t put up with the nonsense we see on an almost nightly basis. Someone who couldn’t care less if they ruffle the feathers of Justin Abdelkader or Jonathan Ericsson or Gustav Nyquist.

I’d suggest John Tortorella but he’s not available. But someone like Torts, who whipped the sad-sack Columbus Blue Jackets into shape almost immediately when brought in midway through the 2015-16 season.

I don’t think Red Wings GM Kenny Holland—who is also quite complicit here—has the temerity to fire Blashill, a friend. Especially not during the season.

But he should.

Advertisements

Blashill must go, but that should just be the start

Kenny Holland has done a lot of things since becoming Red Wings manager—the hockey people don’t put “general” in front of it—in 1997.

He’s made trades. He’s signed free agents. He’s hired scouts. He’s given jobs to former Red Wings left and right—including to fourth line players.

He’s hired three coaches.

But there’s one thing that Holland hasn’t done.

He hasn’t fired a coach.

I don’t count Dave Lewis, by the way.

Lewis, who was elevated from assistant to head coach after the retirement of Scotty Bowman in 2002, coached the Red Wings for two seasons. Then the NHL had its lockout, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

During that time period, Holland quietly ate Lewis’ contract and brought in Mike Babcock to coach, starting in 2005-06.

That’s not a true firing.

The Red Wings haven’t given a coach the ziggy since December 30, 1985, when Harry Neale was relieved of his duties—and relieved is the right word—and replaced by Brad Park.

Jimmy Devellano was the GM in those days. Holland was in his first season as a western scout for the Red Wings, having hung up his goalie pads the previous spring.

Holland has never fired a coach. You wonder if he knows how.

I’m not being facetious here.

To some front office folks, knowing when to can a coach has a certain feel to it. You can’t really explain it. You just know that it’s time to make a change.

Does Holland have that knack? We don’t know, because he’s never had to do it before.

The Red Wings are off on a lengthy road trip. They play 10 of their next 11 games away from Joe Louis Arena, which used to be a house of horrors for the visiting team but is now horrifying to the guys wearing the Winged Wheel.

Jeff Blashill is likely to return from the next 11 games as coach of the Red Wings, just as he began the sojourn, despite the team’s woes over the past month.

But if there is a team that could use a new man behind the bench, it’s the Red Wings.

In full disclosure, I was on board with the Blashill hiring in the summer of 2015. I felt he was the best choice to replace the departed Babcock, given Blashill’s ties to the organization as coach of Grand Rapids of the AHL. He knew many of the current Red Wings (Blashill served one year on Babcock’s staff), so what the heck, why not?

It was another example of the Red Wings’ unfailing loyalty, which has turned into a double edged sword for the franchise in recent years.

But 114 games into the Blashill Era, the same bugaboos are there as existed when he took over.

The lack of shooting and driving to the net. The lack of desire in scoring dirty, ugly goals. Starting games, as Babcock used to say, not on time.

The blowing of third period leads, which has been mind-numbing.

In professional sports, of course, it often matters little if the players are deficient in talent or ability. The coach bites it anyway.

Players such as Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar (Saturday’s hat trick notwithstanding), Gus Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Jonathan Ericsson are either stagnant or are regressing. Or—and don’t say this too loud or Kenny might hear—they were never very good to begin with.

None of that will likely change if Holland decides to give Blashill the ziggy.

A new coach isn’t going to cure the deficiencies in talent. Casey Stengel was a great skipper when he managed the Yankees but not so good when he piloted the Mets. See how that works?

But whatever Blashill says he is preaching to his guys, it doesn’t seem to be getting through.

The coach complains of lack of shooting, yet the team continues not to shoot.

The coach says the power play needs to improve, yet it doesn’t.

The coach says the team needs to bear down more in the third period and not let leads slip away, yet they continue to vanish.

The lines get juggled constantly. Because there’s only so much a coach can do, you know.

The players don’t seem to be responding to whatever method Blashill is using to motivate them.

The fact of the matter is that the Red Wings simply aren’t very good. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

But you don’t fire a coach because the team is lagging behind in talent. You fire a coach if effort, urgency and mental strength appear lacking.

The Red Wings finally got the message—or so we hope—in Saturday’s 6-4 win over Anaheim.

Most of the goals were scored within five feet of the crease. The Red Wings pounded home rebounds. They scored ugly, playoff-type goals.

Can somebody please tell these guys that they’re not capable of scoring the same pretty, precision goals that Red Wings teams of yore used to score?

The game last Tuesday against Arizona was an indictment. The Coyotes were coming off a 7-0 shellacking in Pittsburgh the night before. The Red Wings were at home, rested.

The Coyotes buried the Wings, 4-1.

OK, so let’s see how they react two nights later against Los Angeles, folks said. That will be more telling than the Arizona game, because anyone can have a bad, uninterested night.

About 30 seconds into Thursday’s tilt against the Kings, the Red Wings trailed, 1-0. They lost, 4-1, and the fans got surly again, as they did on Tuesday.

The same old thing: abysmal power play, lack of shooting, yadda yadda.

Video surfaced recently of captain Henrik Zetterberg, miked up, talking to his teammates in the locker room after the Arizona game. The message was designed to be a scolding, but it wasn’t exactly Knute Rockne stuff.

The Red Wings organization used to hang its hat on its stability.

There was a time when the Red Wings were considered a model franchise.

But today, that same stability has morphed into a staleness that is keeping the franchise, I believe, from making some tough yet necessary decisions.

Firing the coach isn’t the panacea, of course. But it should be done. That’s not all that should happen, though.

The Red Wings need an enema. And I wonder if Holland: a) realizes that; or b) is interested in performing it.

That damn playoff streak.

Holland is tone deaf, and it’s hurting everyone—the organization and the fans alike.

The manager of the hockey team in Detroit is so wrapped up in the Red Wings’ playoff streak—every year since 1991—that he thinks everyone else is wrapped up in it, too.

If he’d only listen—or read—the fans in Hockeytown would be amenable to a flat out rebuild. They’d understand. In fact, they’ve been ready for a couple of years for such an exercise.

I believe that Kenny Holland’s pride is leading the Red Wings down a slippery slope.

He doesn’t want the playoff streak to end on his watch. The fans are ready, but he’s not.

As a result, hard decisions aren’t being made about the franchise’s direction.

Now, it’s one thing to declare that a rebuild is necessary, and quite another to actually pull it off.

The Red Wings are in a financial box with their contracts and the salary cap. Their inflexibility with the roster is an albatross.

Holland doesn’t have much to trade. Just about any player he moves, with the exception of Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, will be a case of selling low. Holland would be taking a bath.

Plus, in today’s NHL, midseason trades just aren’t very common anymore. Gone are the days of a December or February blockbuster that shakes the league to its core.

Holland can’t trade his way out of this and come away with anything more than draft picks or low level prospects. He alone is responsible for the financial mess the Red Wings are in.

But he has to do something, and what he has to do is not comfortable for an organization that is loathe to upset the apple cart.

Holland needs to, in no particular order: fire the coach; cut some veterans; give NHL jobs to current AHL players; and put a padlock on his boss’ checkbook and give someone else the key.

No more spending. Use the draft.

Am I talking about the team bottoming out? You betcha.

Babcock, when he arrived in Toronto to take over the Leafs behind the bench, didn’t mince words with the media and the fans who were clamoring for his hiring.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Babcock warned. “There’s going to be pain.”

Babs saw a sinking ship in Detroit. And that was before Pavel Datsyuk’s return to the motherland.

Yet he was willing to go to Toronto, because at least Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and company weren’t in denial. The Maple Leafs brass knew that a tear down and a rebuild were in order.

Holland seems unwilling to totally buy into the R-word and its need in Detroit.

“We have to find a way to score goals,” Holland said last week. “We’re not scoring goals the way we expected to be.”

See, that’s the problem. The Red Wings didn’t possess very many forwards on their roster that realistically could be expected to score a lot of goals to begin with. The ones that had, were regressing.

The line between loyalty and denial can be very fine in pro sports.

Hard decisions face the Red Wings right now.

Trouble is, the one man who can make them, refuses to acknowledge their need.

 

With each loss and regurgitated explanation, Blashill’s seat might be getting warmer

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.

Poof!

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.

Image result for jeff blashill

Blashill’s teams haven’t been able to hold third period leads since he took over last season.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First-year coach Blashill not about to be the guy who fouls up Red Wings’ culture

It’s been so long since there’s been dysfunction with the Red Wings, that we’ve lost a whole generation of cynicism.

After dinosaurs like yours truly perish, all we’ll be left with are a bunch of millennials who were born with a silver hockey stick in their mouth.

The Red Wings are 40-plus years past the days of “Darkness with Harkness.” We haven’t been able to truly rail against the franchise’s ineptitude on a regular basis since everyone was wearing bell bottoms and mood rings.

We’re a quarter century into a stretch of nothing but winning, playoff hockey—and four Stanley Cups, plus two Finals appearances.

Sometimes I miss the days of dysfunction.

Sometimes I wish I had been writing about sports when GM Ned Harkness bugged star center Garry Unger about the length of his hair. That would have been a hoot.

I would have loved to pen a column about how the Red Wings sloppily changed coaches in 1973 by firing Ted Garvin and naming player Alex Delvecchio as his replacement—except Alex hadn’t retired yet and league rules forbade a player from also coaching. So Garvin had to coach that night—AFTER he’d been given the ziggy. Teddy left midway through the third period. Injured player Tim Ecclestone finished coaching the game.

What a humdinger that was.

Oh, to have been a sportswriter when GM Ted Lindsay signed 33 year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon as a free agent, only to come perilously close to losing young center Dale McCourt as compensation to the Los Angeles Kings.

Those Lindsay teams were fun. Teddy signed the likes of Steve Durbano and Dave Hanson to bully opponents—kind of like how Teddy did as a player, only without the talent.

But then Mike Ilitch bought the team in 1982 and after a few false starts, it’s been nothing but win, win, win.

As a writer, where’s the fun in that?

At least when the Red Wings lost Mike Babcock to free agency, there was hope that the new coach would come in and foul things up, finally.

No such luck.

Jeff Blashill has stepped in and as the Red Wings did when Bryan Murray came on board and when Scotty Bowman arrived and when Dave Lewis replaced Scotty and when Babcock replaced Lewis, the team hasn’t missed a beat with a new coach.

Again.

Blashill has his team playing good hockey right now, despite the loss in Los Angeles on Monday night, which snapped a four-game winning streak (all on the road).

As a coach, it’s easier to win in any pro sport if you have the players. That’s true. But what’s happening with the Red Wings is further validation that it’s maybe just as much about the system and the culture as it is anything else.

This isn’t to take anything away from Blashill, who was Babcock’s replacement in waiting at Grand Rapids. Actually, it’s praise for Blashill, because even though there might be a great culture in Hockeytown, you can still be the guy who screws it up if you don’t handle things with aplomb.

Blashill made the right move in accepting a pay raise in Grand Rapids with the promise that he wouldn’t pursue an NHL head coaching gig, knowing that Babcock might leave after the 2014-15 season, when his contract expired.

It was the right move because how many coaches can be set up so well for success as you can with the Red Wings?

Coaching, as you know, has all the job security of a snowman in the summertime. The late, great Earl Lloyd once said, after agreeing to coach the Pistons in 1971, “It’s funny. As a coach, as soon as you sign a contract you’re also signing your termination papers.”

So true.

So when a coach has a chance to join a team with a winning tradition and an owner’s commitment to spend and a GM who’s among the best

Jan 7, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock (left) talks to assistant coach Jeff Blashill on the bench against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Blashill’s year as a Babcock assistant is paying dividends now.

in any sport, with a scouting department that makes the other teams’ look like a bunch of Mr. Magoos, you jump at it.

Or, you bide your time and wait for it to open up, as Blashill did.

The wait was worth it, as Blashill would surely admit.

This isn’t to say that Jeff Blashill won’t, someday, be given the ziggy as coach of the Red Wings. But GM Ken Holland has only fired one coach in his 18 years on the job—Lewis, and that was more because of the misfortune of following a legend like Bowman than anything else, because Lewie had two outstanding regular seasons as coach.

But if Blashill gets canned, it won’t be anytime soon and it might be because the two sides got tired of each other, rather than because of any ineptitude. It might not even be a firing—it could be Babcock-like in its circumstance.

The Red Wings have not been the perfect team by any imagination this season, but they’re kings of the road and Blashill has displayed a tender knack for knowing when to push and let up. He demands accountability, albeit not with the same in-your-face style as Babcock did. Blashill has handled his delicate goaltending situation perfectly, if you ask me.

The Red Wings have mostly avoided lengthy slumps, and the only real negative is that the team has perhaps underachieved at home, which is a shame because the first half of the schedule was heavy with games at JLA.

But that’s nitpicking.

Blashill, of course, learned about coaching in the NHL from none other than Babcock, for whom he assisted for one season before getting more seasoning with the Griffins.

There are a bunch of firsts with Jeff Blashill.

First Red Wings coach born in the United States. First former goalie to coach the Red Wings. First one who was born in the 1970s.

There’s only one more first for him to achieve, and it’s a biggie.

Could Blashill be the first Red Wings coach to win a Stanley Cup in his first season on the job since Jimmy Skinner did it in 1955?

Just asking.

Blashill Uses Harry Sinden Model (for now) Between Red Wings’ Pipes

It’s an old line, first mined in the world of football.

“If you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have one.”

It’s derisive and dismissive.

How can a football coach have two quarterbacks, when only one can play at a time?

Must mean that said coach has no quarterback at all—because he can’t rely on a designated starter.

Some would have you believe the same is true in hockey.

“If you have two goalies, then you don’t have one.”

Horsepucky!

Tell that to the Boston Bruins powerhouse teams of the late-1960s, early-1970s.

Starting in 1968-69 and extending for four seasons, the Bruins divvied up the goaltending duties in a virtual 50/50 fashion.

Eddie Johnston and Gerry Cheevers took turns in net for Boston, literally.

It didn’t matter if one of them posted a shutout; the next game, the other guy would be between the pipes.

The 50/50 model was the brainchild of coach Harry Sinden, who worked that system for two seasons before successor Tom Johnson carried on the tradition after Sinden moved into the general manager’s chair prior to the 1970-71 campaign.

Cheevers Johnston masks

The goalie masks of Boston’s Eddie Johnston (top) and Gerry Cheevers.

During those four seasons of goalie equality, Cheevers appeared in 174 games, Johnston in 137. Not exactly 50/50, but neither netminder played more than a few games in a row while Sinden and Johnson rotated the tandem.

The Bruins’ goalie duo was somewhat innovative in those days.

The Bruins, an Original Six team, were like any other team from practically the inception of the NHL, in that one goalie played virtually all the games while the second—they were called “spares” in those days—only appeared when the first-string guy was knocked senseless.

Goalies would get traded, but they were traded for each other, often times, to keep everything neat and proper.

I’ll give you my number one guy if you give me yours!

The Red Wings, in the 1950s, had, at various times in the decade, Terry Sawchuk, Harry Lumley and Glenn Hall. All were firmly established number one guys. It would take an act of God for spares such as Hank Bassen to find themselves in net.

But along came Sinden and his system wasn’t so much genius as it was born out of necessity and logic.

The Bruins were an awful team for much of the 1950s and that tradition of futility carried over into the 1960s as well. And the Bruins lost with just one goalie, because that was the norm in the NHL.

Johnston, for example, played in all 70 of the Bruins’ games in 1963-64—and he won just 18 of those.

But then the Bruins claimed Cheevers from Toronto in the intra-league draft in 1965, and Sinden found that he had two quality goalies.

What to do?

Play both of them! Not at the same time, of course—though the Bruins could have done so and still not won too many games.

Cheevers, a few years younger than Johnston, arrived in Boston in ’65 and soon Coach Sinden had the two of them rotating in net.

No doubt that Boston’s two-headed goaltending monster was derided by league fans and observers.

But something funny happened on the way to ignominy.

The Bruins, thanks to a dynamic, pioneering defenseman they drafted named Bobby Orr, and a terrific trade that netted them Phil Esposito, started to win hockey games.

The Bruins became a league power by the end of the 1960s, and they did so with goalies Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston each playing pretty much every other night.

The 50/50 model even carried over into the playoffs, though not right away.

In 1970, Cheevers appeared in 13 playoff games, going 12-1. Johnston only played once. The Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

But in 1972, Johnson restored the 50/50 model for the post-season, and again the Bruins won the Cup—with Johnston going 6-1 and Cheevers, 6-2. They literally were rotated by Johnson on a nightly basis.

The Dynamic Goalie Duo split in the summer of 1972 when Cheevers fled the Bruins for the fool’s gold of the World Hockey Association (Cleveland Crusaders). Cheevers returned to the Bruins in 1976, but by then Johnston had also moved on, to St. Louis.

I invoke Boston’s trailblazing goalie strategy because, early on, it appears that the Red Wings of today are taking a page from the old school Bruins’ playbook.

Last month, new coach Jeff Blashill arrived at Traverse City for his first training camp at the Red Wings’ helm. Right away he was socked in the kisser with a dilemma.

Jimmy Howard, or Petr Mrazek?

Which goalie would Blashill tab as his no. 1 guy between the pipes?

Mrazek and Howard

Mrazek (left) and Howard have split the duties 50/50 so far this season

Would it be the veteran Howard, whose injury troubles and poor play down the stretch last season conspired to cough up the starting job to Mrazek for the playoffs, or would it be Mrazek, the confident, almost sassy youngster whose future looked to be brighter than snow reflected on a sunny winter’s day?

Blashill, a former goalie himself, played it close to the chest protector during camp.

The best guy would get the job, he declared as camp began.

Trouble was, neither guy was the best guy, because both guys played pretty darn good in the exhibition season.

So Blashill, no fool he, showed his hockey brilliance.

He went into the regular season with no clear cut no. 1 goalie, so he decided that Howard and Mrazek would rotate.

And it wasn’t because of the old football postulate; Howard and Mrazek could each start on a lot of NHL teams, and not just on the bad ones.

Through eight games of this young season, each Red Wings goalie has started four times. Their save percentages are virtually the same (Mrazek .925; Howard .924).

The  Red Wings schedule has been Blashill’s friend; his team has played three back-to-back sets of games already, which lends itself well to giving each goalie a night off in those scenarios.

But Blashill will likely keep rotating Howard and Mrazek even when the schedule loosens up.

It works out well, because Mrazek, 23, is way too good to be playing in the minor leagues, and Howard is getting a little long in the tooth (32 in March), so not playing 60-plus games this season should keep him fresh all season.

As for the playoffs, Blashill will worry about those when it’s time.

It’s refreshing, actually, to see an NHL coach—especially a rookie one—embrace a two-goalie system, which teams have been abandoning over the past decade or so as the league again has become enamored with the old school model of an established number one netminder who plays at least 60 games.

The Red Wings have two goalies, but it’s not because they don’t have one.

2015-16 Red Wings: The young and the restless

When it comes to the Red Wings, they have a streak about which you might have heard.

No, not that streak.

This isn’t about the 24 consecutive years of making the playoffs, which started with the 1990-91 season.

This is about another streak that’s brewing.

Five years—and counting—of not advancing past the second round of the post-season.

The 24-year streak of the Red Wings qualifying for the playoffs is cute; the five-year streak of first and second round defeats isn’t.

What good is making the playoffs if you’re being drummed out after a round or two?

Here’s captain Henrik Zetterberg, talking about expectations under new coach Jeff Blashill.

“We are tired of going through the whole season and then when the fun starts, we are only there for two weeks.”

Bingo.

The Red Wings have had two strong Stanley Cup contenders on the ropes in the past three playoffs, but weren’t able to close the deal.

In 2013, Detroit held a 3-1 series lead over the eventual Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, but couldn’t win that fourth game.

Last spring, the Red Wings jetted home from Tampa with a Game 5 win in their hip pocket, giving them a 3-2 series lead in the first round. But alas, the Lightning won Games 6 and 7.

Friday night at Joe Louis Arena, they’ll drop the puck for real to start the 2015-16 season when the Red Wings welcome back Mike Babcock and his new team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A lot has changed for the Red Wings since that tough loss in Game 7 in Tampa on April 29, and I think one of the most important is the team’s mindset.

The Red Wings are, as their captain said, tired of the playoff beat downs that have been occurring every year since 2010 before the conference finals start.

“We are not dwelling on 24 years,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “We are dwelling on the fact that we have lost in the first round a couple of times. We are definitely hungry, that is for sure.”

Combine the veterans’ annoyance and restlessness with the injection of youth and seasoned free agents—plus a new man behind the bench—and the Red Wings seem to be going into ’15-16 with a renewed determination.

It simply is no longer acceptable to just make the playoffs.

It’s time for some serious spring hockey to return to Detroit—hockey played when the building’s air conditioning and ice cooling systems strain against May and June’s warmth. Hockey that competes with Memorial Day barbecues.

Here’s the deal. The Red Wings will, indeed, make the playoffs when the curtain draws on the 2015-16 NHL season.

So that “other” streak will be extended, to 25 years.

But that’s not what this organization is all about. The longer the Red Wings go with early playoff exits, the more the post-season streak threatens to define the franchise.

Then it has the possibility of getting cartoonish. The franchise will turn into a caricature.

The Red Wings made the playoffs? What’s new?

They’re out of the dance before May?

Again, what’s new?

Players like Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen are playing with one eye on the ice and the other on the calendar. Time stops for no hockey player. The autumn of their careers is nigh.

Thank goodness the Red Wings employ maybe the best amateur scouts in professional sports, bar none.

The men charged with beating the bushes of Moose Jaw and searching the ponds of Krylbo are, probably even as you’re reading this, discovering  a second line winger for the 2019-20 season.

Thanks to the scouts’ tireless work, the Red Wings are getting younger, but they’re not getting worse.

The first wave of youth—Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Danny DeKeyser, to name a few—held the team together a few years ago when attrition and an inability to sign free agents threatened to plunge the hallowed Red Wings franchise into hockey purgatory.

Now those players are young veterans. To someone like teenage rookie Dylan Larkin,  the 26 year-old Nyquist must make Larkin feel like he’s playing with Gordie Howe.

Via free agency, the Red Wings added defenseman Mike Green, who’s in his prime at age 29, and wily veteran center Brad Richards, who’s 35 but not yet ready for a rocking chair.

Those were two nice, smart pick ups that didn’t really break the bank. The Red Wings were fortunate to snag Green for just a three year commitment.

Another young player, goalie Petr Mrazek, is enough of a threat to Jimmy Howard’s tenuous status as the no. 1 netminder to push Howard into a sense of urgency about his job—which is probably what Jimmy has needed for a few years.

Then there’s Blashill, the rookie head coach.

Blashill is a rookie by definition only, as he’s never run his own NHL team. But he isn’t Brad Ausmus.

Blashill has been at this coaching thing for nearly 20 years, starting when he was in his twenties.

He’s new, but he’s not. He’s a rookie, but he’s not.

Blashill didn’t need too many personal introductions when he got the Red Wings job in June. His relationship with many of the players goes back to either when Blashill was a Red Wings assistant (2011-12) or when he coached them at Grand Rapids over the past three years.

His voice is fresh, yet familiar.

That’s a pretty good—and rare—combination in professional sports.

So what does all this mean for the Red Wings’ chances this year?

I don’t do predictions. One, because I’m usually wrong. Two, because who cares? In March, Sports Illustrated picked the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series. It’s easy to go out on a limb and be wrong. No one will care. But if you get lucky, you can brag all day.

So I’m not going to say something silly here that I can wave in everyone’s face in June.

I will say this: the time for one-and-done in the playoffs for the Red Wings must end next spring.

The team is seemingly a nice blend of youth, experience and raw, still unmolded talent.

The coach isn’t learning on the job.

Everything is in place for some May hockey.

So, Katie bar the door, Johnny on the spot, stand on his head, put the biscuit in the basket and all that rot.

Drop the puck already!

Blashill Sounds Like Babcock, But Will Talk Be Cheap?

Jeff Blashill isn’t Canadian. But he sure sounds like he is.

In fact, he sure sounds like his predecessor and mentor, Mike Babcock.

If you listened to Blashill, the new Red Wings coach, speak at Tuesday’s introductory presser—especially with your eyes closed—it was like you stepped into a time machine and traveled back to the summer of 2005.

That’s when the Red Wings hired Babcock.

Blashill, 41, is a year younger than Babcock was when the Red Wings brought Babs in to replace longtime, loyal employee Dave Lewis, the promoted assistant whose two years as head coach were checkered.

Blashill speaks with the same cadence as Babcock. He seems to have the same approach to the game as Babcock has.

When Babcock arrived in 2005, most Red Wings fans knew him only from that horrific playoff series in 2003, when Babcock’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks used a hot goalie and some puck luck to sweep Detroit in the first round—a year after the Red Wings capped Scotty Bowman’s brilliant career with another Stanley Cup.

By the time Babs left the Red Wings a decade later, to attempt to breathe life into the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was being hailed as the best coach in the NHL.

Enter Babcock’s Mini Me.

Blashill, born in Detroit and reared in Sault Ste. Marie, has been groomed by the Red Wings for this moment. He spent one year as Babcock’s apprentice in 2011-12 and then he guided the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins for three, bringing a Calder Cup home in 2013.

Blashill represents the new age hockey coach in the NHL: young and prepped in college and the minors.

It’s another confession here from an admitted old-timer.

It’s remembrances of when the NHL coach wore a fedora behind the bench and he had a first name like Toe or Punch or Sid. His ruddy face was etched with crevices. He wasn’t younger than 50. There were only six of them.

And they were never, ever, anything other than Canadian.

Today, five times that many are coaching in the league, and more teams are opting for youth behind the bench.

Not only is Blashill on the young side, but he’s young and a coaching veteran. That’s how these kid coaches roll nowadays.

Blashill is barely older than the players, yet he’s been behind hockey benches for well over a decade. Which means he started coaching in his 20s.

Mike Babcock started in his 20s as well.

I don’t think the coaches in the Original Six days were ever in their 20s. I swear they came to life one day, pacing behind the bench at the Forum or Olympia, 53 years old.

Blashill was a goalie when he played, and you can make cracks if you’d like, that former goalies rarely make good head coaches. You’d be right. It’s kind of like how former pitchers rarely make good managers in baseball.

It’s another former goalie, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who kept Blashill hostage in the organ-eye-ZAY-shun last summer. When Blashill was being approached by other NHL teams, Holland hit Blashill with a hefty raise and made the kid coach promise to stay with the Red Wings. If that sounds like how the Mafia does things, well there you have it.

The reality is that if Holland is anything, it’s that he’s always prepared with a Plan B.

In this case, B, as in Babcock/Blashill.

One of the two Bs was going to be the Red Wings coach in 2015-16. That was for sure.

If Babcock played the field after his contract expired on June 30, 2015, and found that the ice isn’t always smoother elsewhere, then Babs would be the coach in Detroit.

If Babcock left, then Blashill was going to be the man.

There was no Plan C, because it wasn’t going to be needed.

The Red Wings have their first American-born head coach, and the first to be born in the 1970s. It’s like being the first U.S. president to be born in a hospital.

Blashill’s birth in December, 1973—in Detroit—presents a delicious tidbit for the old-timers, like yours truly.

Blashill was born when the Red Wings were a league laughing stock. Just a few months after Blashill entered the world, Red Wings GM Ned Harkness resigned.

Harkness left the Red Wings a mess, four years after he swept into town. It took the franchise a good 15 years to return to relevance.

More irony here.

Harkness was the Red Wings’ attempt to be forward thinking. He was hired from the campus of Cornell University, where he was wildly successful as a college hockey coach.

The NHL barely had any college-prepped players, let alone coaches, in 1970.

Now here comes Blashill, with some college coaching experience at Western Michigan University and those three years in the AHL.

Where Ned Harkness was an “out of the box” hire, Jeff Blashill is merely another young hockey coach who is getting his big chance in the NHL.

Harkness was hired out of the blue; Blashill was waiting in the, um, wings.

Harkness was hired against the wishes of GM Sid Abel; Blashill was hand-picked by GM Ken Holland.

OK, so it’s not necessary to belabor how this Red Wings organization is so very different from the the one that stumbled through the league in the 1970s, but with Blashill being born in 1973 and growing up a Red Wings fan when the team was doo-doo, the old time hockey fan can’t help but smirk.

Blashill wanted this Red Wings job very badly. So did a host of other coaches, but the reality is that they never had a shot at it.

Coaching the Detroit Red Wings is like managing the New York Yankees. The line of interested parties in the job would be longer than that at a deli counter on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s a plum job and Blashill has been eyeing it ever since he served his one year as an assistant in Detroit.

Of course, it’s one thing to be standing next to the head coach and quite another to actually be him—especially with the Red Wings.

You don’t coach hockey in Detroit in anonymity.

Come next spring, Jeff Blashill is likely to find himself in a playoff series. It will be his crash course. The shelter that being an assistant coach provides will be gone. The kid coach will have to grow up in a hurry.

Contrary to some people’s belief, the Red Wings don’t gun to simply make the playoffs every year to keep their post-season streak alive.

The goal every year is to win the Stanley Cup.

Wait—isn’t that every team’s goal?

Sure, but in Detroit it’s more than just talk. The Red Wings haven’t raised hockey’s chalice in seven years and that’s bordering on being unacceptable.

Two years ago, the Red Wings took the favored Chicago Blackhawks to a seventh game in the conference semi-finals. In April, the Red Wings scared the bejeebers out of the current Cup finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, extending that first round series to seven games.

Was Mike Babcock the reason that those underdog Red Wings teams didn’t go quietly?

Not sure.

But instead of basking in the glory of twice taking a favored opponent to the brink of elimination (the Red Wings blew a 3-1 series lead against Chicago and a 3-2 lead against Tampa), the focus ought to be on why the Red Wings couldn’t close the deal.

Maybe that’s a question better asked of Holland, but Blashill is the one that’s going to be at the podium, answering reporters’ questions during the playoffs.

And we’ll see how much he still sounds like his predecessor.