By: Will Burchfield
Here we are again with Jeff Blashill and the Red Wings’ young players. Here we are again with ice time.
Perhaps the most hot-button issue during Blashill’s two-and-a-half-year tenure as head coach was reignited on Tuesday night when he benched Tyler Bertuzzi and Andreas Athanasiou for much of the third period in Detroit’s 3-2 loss to the Bruins.
Afterward, Blashill criticized his team for a lack of effort. He said there were only “a handful of guys going hard.” In the case of Bertuzzi and Athanasiou, this forced Blashill into doing something he’d rather avoid.
“I want these young guys to grow, so I don’t want to hide them. But they have to play better than that,” Blashill said.
He paused a few seconds before adding in frustration, “You guys watched, right?”
The 22-year-old Bertuzzi, who entered the game averaging 15:11 of ice time, played a season-low 7:54. The 23-year-old Athanasiou, who came in averaging 16:08, got 10:57. Bertuzzi, who not long ago was getting top-six minutes, played just one shift in the third.
As a group, the Wings were a step behind for the first two periods. They had just 12 shots on goal through 40 minutes, compared to 24 for the Bruins. It was a far cry from the team that generated lots of offense in the three games prior.
Blashill admitted he was surprised.
“We have to be better than that,” he said. “You can’t kind of pretend your way into it, you have to be way more ready to compete. … It’s a learning process, for sure, for some young guys. It’s an everyday league, boy. It’s an everyday league.”
This is a drum Blashill beats often. He’s adamant that his young players bring it on a night-in-night-out basis, that they understand what it takes to succeed in the NHL. And though he doesn’t like to watch them languish on the bench, he’s also not willing to gift them ice time they haven’t earned. It would excuse bad habits.
Dylan Larkin learned this lesson last year. Anthony Mantha has learned it too. Athanasiou knows it like the back of his hand. Blashill and Red Wings general manager Ken Holland are firmly of the belief that young players should be kept on a much shorter leash than veterans.
“I think some people think development is just go play, have whoever just go play. That is 100 percent bull,” Blashill said heading into the All-Star break. “Part of learning is having to sit sometimes. Part of learning is getting an understanding of being rewarded for efforts.
“My job is to have the individual players on the team develop through the course of the year so that we’re better at the end of the year, individually, than we were at the beginning of the year. Sometimes that means somebody sits. Sometimes that means we show him video. Sometimes that means we show him in front of the guys. Sometimes that means I yell at you.
“All those things change the habits of a player.”
Blashill said he yelled at his team plenty during the second period Tuesday night. It may or may not have had an effect in the third when the Wings played better. But in terms of recourse measures when certain players aren’t pulling their weight, the coach said “(cutting) ice time is generally the best one.”
There are teams in the NHL that are talented enough to win without a max effort every single night. The Red Wings are not one of them. Blashill has stressed this time and time again to his team. But for young players who got by on their skill coming up through the ranks, who, in many cases, skilled their way to the NHL, it can be a difficult concept to grasp.
That’s why nights like Tuesday happen.
“I think it’s natural and normal, but we don’t want to be normal,” said Blashill.
The Wings therefore have to be special in the way they compete.
“We certainly weren’t special tonight,” Blashill said. “We were okay.”
And he drew out that last word with ho-hum acceptance, as if to mirror the nonchalant effort of his team.