Detroit coach Jeff Blashill is definitely taking some heat for his choices in roster management as of late. As a coach, it’s my instinct to defend him, but I’m not going to harp on analyzing his choices about specific players because the unfortunate part is, right now nothing he does particularly matters.
There’s a lot to effectively running a bench. There’s clock management, line matching, sudden injuries or equipment fails, penalties, and any other number of things that disrupt even the best laid plans.
All of those are part of what actually makes coaching fun. When there’s a good mood around the team and your players are putting out for you, you want to do everything possible to help them succeed. Your senses ignite. You get energized. You start to dissect the game in a very intricate way looking for that edge. This is where you can play with the systems and the trick plays and really be an imaginative hockey coach and start to do the things that make you feel like you’re giving a competitive edge to your team.
When your players aren’t putting out for you, all that energy and emotion focused on tactics and line matching is completely wasted. It’s time to be the motivator. It’s time to take that energy away from yourself and try to re-ignite an emotion throughout the roster.
You can argue all day about what players Blashill should be using against Johnson’s line. You can say how Athanasiou is quick and skilled and needs more ice time. You can probably give very good reasons why Mantha should be playing. But here’s the thing: if you’ve got Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and Richards and Helm, and Kronwall and Dekeyser, you can’t be looking for anyone else to take over a series.
For Detroit right now, as a team they’re all being outworked. They’re all being outskated. Sometimes you can insert an Athanasiou on a struggling line to bring those couple of players around. Sometimes you can pop him on a powerplay that’s rolling so he can be a part of fun.
But when everyone is struggling, giving him more ice time for the sake of giving him more ice time is useless. Putting him on a lifeless powerplay will only make him part of a larger failure than he’s already in.
Guys like Athanasiou and Mantha, and even Larkin, are still support players. You don’t give them more ice time and expect magic to happen proportionately. The goal isn’t to give them more of a role. The goal is to allow them to better fullfill their role of support player for your stars.
Forget your lines. Forget your matchups. Leave what Tampa’s doing out of it. Like I said, any time devoted to that is wasted because you don’t have the army to fight the war. You need to shock the heart of your own team or you’re dead.
Here’s how you do that.
Take your best three players right now. Not your best on paper. Not your most skilled. Not your best left winger, right winger, and centre. I mean ANY three players that are working the hardest. You start them. You follow up with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Richards. Then you go right back with your “workhorse line.” If your stars had a good shift, come back with them. If they didn’t, pick the next three chumps. Then go back with your workhorses. You start asking “who wants to join them? Who wants to play?” If someone volunteers, you give them a shot, always going right back with your workhorses. “Anyone want to jump on the train? Who wants to be part of the fun?” As players respond, you work them in. If they don’t, they go back to the end of the line. Make the players beg for their ice time. Make the players earn it. Make the players see what’s good enough. Even if no one responds at first and you keep having to double shift your working line to exhaustion, I guarantee at least three more guys are going to see those grinders come off, hustling themselves to death, and be extra motivated to help them out.
A team is an amazing thing. You don’t make the playoffs for 25 years, and barely make it on either game 81 or 82 for 3-4 years and not form an amazing bond. If Blashill can start playing to that aspect it might be the only defense against Tampa. The Lightning might be the better team and they might not be, but right now they’re the only team in the series at all.