Jeff Blashill and Jon Cooper are really close friends and it will only be a matter of time before they’re both living out their dreams as NHL coaches. You know all about Cooper now that he’s working his magic with the Tampa Bay Lightning. And sooner or later, you’ll learn about Blashill, who was named the American League’s coach of the year for his work with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
It may not be this summer, but Blashill will be an NHL coach very soon. And who knows? With all the coaching opportunities that figure to be opening up this summer, perhaps someone will take a chance on a 40-something AHL coach of the year and Calder Cup winner, the way the Tampa Bay Lightning did with Cooper. It’s not without its precedent. Since 2009, Cooper, Guy Boucher and Scott Arniel went directly from being AHL coach of the year to the head man behind an NHL bench.
“Personally, I think he needs another year or two to get more of a base of experience,” said Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, who hired Blashill as an assistant in Detroit before making him the Griffins head coach in 2012-13. “But I think he’s an NHL coach in the making, there’s no doubt about that.”
But here’s the thing. Blashill’s stock is only going to go up in the next year so if you have a coaching vacancy this summer that needs to be addressed and you think Blashill is ready to take it on, perhaps you go to the Red Wings and ask for permission to speak with him. (Both Mike Babcock and Blashill have one year left on their contracts and the Red Wings have to be growing a little tired of grooming people such as Steve Yzerman and Jim Nill for other organizations. It’s probably not going to happen, but Holland risks losing two NHL-caliber coaches after next season, so he might not be so thrilled with letting Blashill go this summer.)
And if you’re looking for someone to deliver immediate results, well, Blashill has quite a track record of doing just that. In 2008-09, in his first season with the Indiana Ice of the USHL, he won the league championship along with Boston Bruins rookie defenseman Torey Krug. He took a moribund program at Western Michigan that had won only nine games the previous year and got the team, on that included current Red Wings defenseman Danny DeKeyser, into the CCHA final and the NCAA tournament. And last season, his first in the pro ranks, he led the Griffins to the Calder Cup championship, helping develop the Red Wings prospects for prime-time roles along the way. This fall he coached the Red Wings prospects to the championship of the Traverse City tournament, which hasn’t happened since 1999.
But it’s his work with the Griffins that has been his best. Aside from winning the Calder Cup and following that up with what will certainly be a 100-point season, Blashill oversaw the development of players such as Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Luke Glendening and Joakim Andersson, all of whom played vital roles with the injury-depleted Red Wings this season.
Much has been made of Mike Babcock’s efforts this season in getting the Red Wings in the playoffs despite all the injuries. But what you have to realize is that has a trickle-down effect on the affiliate as well. When half the Grand Rapids team is up in Detroit, that means the guy in Grand Rapids is competing at the AHL level with a bunch of ECHL guys in his lineup.
Blashill is certainly young by NHL standards, but in a league that recycles coaches with varying degrees of success, he might be the kind of coach who can have some success. Holland says he relates well with today’s players and is able to make them accountable without using intimidation tactics.
The son of a former police officer-turned-university professor, Blashill played four years at Ferris State University where he had a great GPA (led the team in that category three of his four seasons) and a lousy save percentage. “I knew I wasn’t good enough to play,” Blashill said, “so that was when I got a start with coaching. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.”