Watching Jonathan Ericsson make error after error and take a regular shift makes you wonder who’s coaching the Detroit Red Wings.
Ericsson was brutal in Saturday’s 4-3 win over Buffalo. He was credited with three giveaways (but may have doled out more). The Sabres scored a powerplay goal when Ericsson was in the penalty box. Ericsson tripped Datsyuk at center ice, giving Jack Eichel the breakaway he needed to tie the game at 2. If goalie Petr Mrazek wasn’t so spectacular, Ericsson’s miscues would have cost Detroit two points today.
Let’s be clear. If Jakub Kindl played like Ericsson did today, he wouldn’t see the ice for a month. And that’s why you wonder who’s coaching the team. Coach Jeff Blashill is coaching Mike Babcock’s gameplan – from the line combinations to the pressbox.
Babcock is a great hockey coach. While he’s probably overrated, he’s still one of the best in the game. Still, when he signed that monster contract with Toronto, he was long past his “best before” date in Detroit. Every coach has a shelf life and Babcock’s quirks were beginning to look demented and ugly.
Nobody was surprised when the Red Wings hired Jeff Blashill. The way things unfold in Hockeytown is deliberate. It’s how you knew Zetterberg was going to be captain one day back when he was a kid. It’s how you know today Larkin and Abdelkader will wear letters one day.. There’s always a plan of succession, it seems (except for replacing the skill of Lidstrom and perhaps Datsyuk and Zetterberg). Grand Rapids Griffins watchers sang the praises of Blashill. While he sure sounded like Babcock in interviews, Griffins watchers assured us that he was his own man, with his own ideas. He appreciated skill and puck possession, they said. He wouldn’t be afraid to use the kids, he said.
So far, though, the Blashill era has been a mixed bag. Every time this team starts playing well and making believers out of skeptics, the Wings skid into a slump. And every time this slumping team looks hopeless, they rise up and play well.
Blashill has done positive things. He gave Dylan Larkin the kind of long leash that Babcock never gave youngsters in Detroit, let alone a fresh-faced 19-year-old. Look at Larkin’s ice time and compare it to the ice time granted to older rookies like Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Tomas Tatar or Gustav Nyquist. Would Larkin have been such a revelation if Babcock was still coach?
To a lesser extent, we’ve seen Alexey Marchenko seemingly pass Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith on the depth charts. On the other hand, didn’t that already happen in the playoffs last year? Any temptation to give Blashill credit for his handling of Mrazek is also tempered by the fact that Babcock started Mrazek over Howard in last year’s playoffs.
During this 4 game slump (despite today’s 4-3 win over Buffalo, this team is playing poorly), it’s become increasingly clear that Blashill is just playing out the Babcock string. The latest line changes show that Justin Abdelkader is tied to Henrik Zetterberg’s hip and Darren Helm to Pavel Datsyuk’s. Those are Babcock pairings.
Jakub Kindl, Babcock’s whipping boy, is now the main resident in Blashill’s dog house. Kindl hasn’t been very good this year. He’s been mostly OK with a true nod toward mediocrity. He and Smith have rotated in and out Blashill’s doghouse. Since Smith has been productive lately, Kindl is on the outs. He sat out for nearly three weeks until Jonathan Ericsson got hurt. Now that Ericsson is back, Kindl is back in the press box.
Babcock’s lines and game plans didn’t work in Detroit anymore. Abdelkader and especially Helm aren’t ideal top line or top six forwards. Abdelkader shouldn’t be playing two or three minutes a night more than Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar.
Ericsson isn’t a top pairing defenseman and, in fact, might be the worst defenseman on the Red Wings’ blueline. He's never had good defensive instincts and the hand injury he suffered a couple years ago has made him a turnover machine.
Babcock, for all the talk about how tough he was, didn’t have the balls to bench Ericsson. When the going got tough and Babcock needed to bench someone, his go-to guys were Kindl and Smith. At forward, he always seemed to pick on Tatar (AKA Jiri Hudler 2.0).
It’s time for Blashill to trash the Babcock playbook. And he should start by sitting Ericsson Monday at New Jersey and removing Helm from Datsyuk’s wing.