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Roughly a quarter of the way through the 2021-22 NHL season, three head coaches have been fired.
Jeremy Colliton, Travis Green, and Alain Vigneault have all been shown the door after each’s team failed to meet expectations through the first 20 games or so of the year. Their dismissals demonstrate how the NHL is typically a results-oriented business, and not one founded on building through continuity and process.
Of the 32 coaches currently behind a bench in the league, 26 were hired in 2018 or later, and none has been on their current squad longer than Jon Cooper, who took over as head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2013. To compare it to a league like the NFL, where continuity has been the cornerstone for some of its most successful franchises like the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, 10 of its coaches have been with the same team since 2017 or earlier, and five have held their current positions longer than Cooper.
The amount of turnover in the NHL can make it difficult for coaches to implement successful long-term strategies, as the job requirement typically entails immediately turning around a struggling franchise. Failure to do so lands you in the same spot Colliton, Green, and Vigneault are all currently in.
That’s unless you’re Jeff Blashill, head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. Blashill is the third-longest tenured coach in the NHL, having been behind the Wings’ bench since 2015. The team hasn’t undergone any sort of measurable success since he took over, and it’s even seen a front-office change when current general manager Steve Yzerman replaced Ken Holland in 2019. Despite the lack of success and a new front office, the organization has stuck by Blashill, as made evident by Yzerman’s decision to re-sign the bench boss when his contract expired at the end of the 2020-21 season.
It’s worth listing some of Blashill’s accolades before continuing. The Detroit-native was promoted to the head coaching position when Mike Babcock left the Red Wings to pursue the Toronto Maple Leafs’ head-coaching vacancy. Prior to landing his current gig, he was the bench boss for the Grand Rapids Griffins, leading the AHL team to its first-ever Calder Cup in 2013. He earned a 134–71–12–11 record across three seasons, won at least 40 games in each campaign, seven of the nine playoff series he coached in, and was named the most outstanding coach in the minors during the 2013-14 season.
When asked about his decision to extend Blashill, Yzerman, as he usually does, provided a response that most hockey executives should pay attention to.
“I feel our team is collectively very competitive,” Yzerman said. “Whether we play well or not every night is different, but we play hard. Our players play hard and I think that’s a reflection of the coaching staff, that they have the respect of the players.”
Yzerman also added the following when discussing Blashill’s coaching philosophies.
“Jeff has really worked with me with transitioning our young players into the lineup, being patient with them,” Yzerman noted. “Not handing them positions or ice time, really forcing them to earn it and guiding them along.”
Unlike most front offices, which demand that coaches must get the most out of young, inexperienced players immediately, Yzerman has afforded Blashill time to prioritize development over instant success. Detroit’s front office has also focused on ensuring that the man behind the bench is the right fit, rather than judging him based on his win-loss record.
Again, unlike most front offices which dump the coach that was there before at the first chance for their preferred candidate, the Red Wings have stuck by Blashill and given him a fair opportunity to prove himself.
Yzerman focuses on the right details, and you’d be foolish to think that all of this continuity hasn’t impacted the team’s early-season success.
Despite many, including myself, believing that the Red Wings were still years away from being competitive, the squad has proven otherwise in the early part of the 2021-22 season. Detroit currently holds one of the two Eastern Conference Wild Card spots, which is impressive when you consider how loaded both the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions are.
Of course, rookie sensations Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, along with netminder Alex Nedeljkovic, deserve most of the credit, but it’s worth recognizing Yzerman’s willingness to give Blashill time to implement his system, which in turn, has allowed the players to grow familiar with and find success in it.
Detroit may fade out of the playoff picture as the year continues to roll on, but it has demonstrated that it is not far off from being a perennial contender. With a strong crop of prospects still untapped at the NHL level, it’s only a matter of time until Hockey Town returns to its former glory.
While other NHL teams continue to view firing and hiring coaches as a way to manufacture short-term and oftentimes temporary success, the Red Wings are demonstrating that the best way to do things sometimes involves looking beyond the wins and losses, and a little bit of patience.
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