The stage is now set for the Red Wings to promote coach Jeff Blashill to Detroit from Grand Rapids after the Griffins’ season-ending 2-0 Calder Cup playoff loss at Utica.
The only question that remains is which among a handful of talented players will accompany him to Hockeytown when the puck drops to start the 2015-16 NHL season in October. Since Mike Babcock left to coach Toronto after a decade in Detroit, it’s been an open secret around the NHL that Blashill would replace him behind the Red Wings’ bench.
General Manager Ken Holland said he would wait until Grand Rapids’ season ends before naming Babcock’s successor. That could happen within a few days.
Blashill, 41, was hired by Babcock and spent a year as an assistant in Detroit before taking the helm in Grand Rapids.
"I’m pumped for him," Babcock said in his exit interview with the Detroit media after taking the Toronto job. "He’s a good man, he’s smart, he’s put his time in, treats people good. He’s demanding.
"He’s gone down there and he’s been real good. We’ve talked five times a week ever since. He’s a great man, and a great hockey coach."
The Griffins had a tremendous three-year run under Blashill. They averaged 44 wins and 97 points and finished 63 games above .500 over the past three 76-game seasons. The Griffins have played nine playoff series, winning seven of them in the past three springs. They won the Calder Cup in 2013, Blashill’s first season behind the Grand Rapids’ bench.
Now he’s headed to Detroit, and with that major piece of the puzzle in place, Holland can turn his attention to tweaking his NHL roster.
One player destined for Detroit is sniper Teemu Pulkkinen, who has nothing left to prove after leading the American Hockey League in scoring this year (despite missing a third of the season playing in Detroit) and leading all playoff goal-scorers with 14 in 17 games.
More important, Pulkkinen is out of options and would have to clear waivers to be sent back to Grand Rapids. That wouldn’t happen.
"People talk much about the overall game, about playing good defense and offense both," said Pulkkinen, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound winger. "I need to try to get better on the things where I still have to improve, like the defensive game. And I have to work at getting bigger and stronger."
Pulkkinen said it’s a matter of getting comfortable and finding his groove. While he scored almost at will in the AHL the past two seasons, he was limited to five goals among eight points in 31 games in Detroit. He knows he has to work harder to find open ice to receive the puck, and he has to learn to pull the trigger a little faster on what scouts agree is a devastating shot.
"I hope I can score goals like here. That’s my game," Pulkkinen said. "When I feel comfortable around all the guys, my teammates and coaches, I know that I can score goals. But when you go up there, you’re a rookie guy, that’s not easy. You don’t really know all the guys that will. I’ve been here two years. I feel comfortable here. When I feel like that, I know that I can help my team by scoring goals."
Also among newcomers among regulars in Detroit next season could be a couple of younger defensemen. Two of them, Alexey Marchenko and Xavier Ouellet, both showed they can step in and hold their own on the blue line in the NHL this season.
Brian Lashoff couldn’t break the lineup in Detroit, but played very well and continued to develop his game after he was sent to Grand Rapids. And Nick Jensen showed the kind of speed, grit and character the Wings value. And like Marchenko he’s a right-hand shot, which the Wings covet to balance their defense pairings.
"A year from now, all those guys are all facing waivers, so we have to make some decisions," Holland said. "But one of them should be up in Detroit next year. Maybe a couple."