The progress isn't apparent in the standings. With five wins through their first 20 games this season, the Red Wings look headed for another last-place finish. They're certain to miss the playoffs, by a wide margin, for the fifth year in a row.
But on the ice, Jeff Blashill believes the progress is evident. He believes the Red Wings are beginning to embrace a style of play that will enable long-term success. He believes the vision he shares with GM Steve Yzerman is starting to take shape.
"I think we’ve grown from a defensive standpoint," Blashill said Monday. "I think we’ve grown from a mentality standpoint, meaning, I think our guys, especially our young players who are going to continue to have a big impact on this organization for a long time, are understanding how important it is to be very good defensively, to make sure that you’re not giving up anything easy, that you’re efficient and that you’re taking what’s given.
"I think our younger players over the last three, four years have learned to not press and not force quite as much, and I think that’s manifested itself a decent amount this year. We’ve had some nights where it’s been bad. But overall, I think there’s been progress made both in individual players and then, probably just as importantly, the mentality of what it’s going to take to win long-term here."
From a win-loss perspective, Yzerman expected the Red Wings to improve this season. He felt the moves he made in the offseason would allow the club to be more competitive. He's been wrong and right. While the results haven't changed, Detroit has generally been a harder team to play against. That's where Blashill sees progress.
Blashill likes to measure the Red Wings' process in terms of scoring chances. Last season, the Wings ranked second to last in the NHL in rate of five-on-five scoring chances for at 44.66 percent. This season they're tied for 21st at 48.7 percent. That's closer to what Blashill calls "winning hockey." Closer to what he and Yzerman call "doing it the right way."
"We’re trying to build a foundation here of long-term success. When you struggle you can try to win the next game and you’re just constantly chasing your tail, or you can stay with a long-term plan," Blashill said. "Steve and I have had lots of conversations about the fact we gotta make sure we do it the right way here. It’s been very apparent, we want to win in the long term. And to do that you have to have that foundation built, and I think our players are learning that part of the foundation.
"This is a long-winded answer, but a lot of times in life you have to go through it, you have to get slapped in the face a little bit."
Blashill points to Yzerman's former team as proof. The Lighting were a Cup contender for most of the last decade, but they didn't win it all until they committed themselves to playing a tighter defensive game. The type of game the Wings are learning to play this season.
"You want to build a foundation for what we’d all like to do here, and that’s play championship hockey," Blashill said. "If you look no further than last year's Stanley Cup champions, they’ve been a good offensive team for a long time but they couldn’t get over the hump. In fact, they lost in four (in the first round in 2019). It wasn’t until their players really as a group made the decision, especially their top guys, that they were going to play the type of hockey that I would call winning hockey. Meaning, you don’t give up any easy chances against, you make it very, very hard for the other team, you take what’s given, you make plays when there’s plays to be made, you don’t force things and you find ways to win close games.
"As you add talent to your team when you have that kind of foundation, those 2-1 losses turn to 3-2 wins turn to 5-2 wins, sometimes even 6-2 wins, and it looks like an offensive explosion. But – and I’ve coached lots of these teams – you just wear them down over time and when you have guys that score fairly naturally, you score in those games."
Blashill's contract expires after this season. The Red Wings have the most losses in the league over the course of his six-year tenure, the third longest in the NHL. That can be blamed on circumstance as much as anything, and Yzerman has praised Blashill in the past for developing the team's young players. If he sees the same progress now as the man behind the bench, Blashill will likely be back.