DETROIT (AP) — The moment Mike Babcock left the Detroit Red Wings, Jeff Blashill was the obvious candidate to replace him.
In fact, this coaching hire seemed more like a succession plan that was in place for about a year before Babcock’s departure.
The 41-year-old Blashill was introduced Tuesday as Detroit’s new coach, an announcement that felt almost inevitable ever since Babcock left last month to take over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Blashill has coached Detroit’s minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids for the past three seasons.
“He was really the only candidate,” general manager Ken Holland said.
Blashill led Grand Rapids to the Calder Cup in 2013. The Griffins made it to the conference finals in the AHL playoffs this year.
Holland said Blashill received a four-year contract from the Red Wings.
The Red Wings certainly had time to come up with a contingency plan for Babcock’s potential exit. His contract was expiring at the end of this season, and Blashill, a Detroit native, was eyeing the job.
“I told Ken a year ago that with Mike’s uncertainty, if Mike were to leave Detroit, that the Red Wing job was the job that I wanted most of any in the NHL,” Blashill said. “I was a Red Wing fan, an avid Red Wing fan growing up. It’s a great city that I believe in. It’s a great organization.”
Holland said several NHL teams asked permission to interview Blashill after last season, so he told the Grand Rapids coach he could either interview for those jobs or rework his contract to stay with the Griffins. Blashill stayed.
“We certainly talked about the uncertainty of Mike Babcock’s situation,” Holland said. “I told Blash that if we weren’t able to retain Babs that he would be my No. 1 candidate.”
Blashill coached at Western Michigan in 2010-11 before joining the Red Wings’ organization. He was an assistant coach for one season before taking over at Grand Rapids. He also coached the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League from 2008-10.
Blashill’s familiarity with many players in Detroit’s system could make this transition easier. Denny DeKeyser, Luke Glendening, Petr Mrazek, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar are among the current Red Wings who played for Blashill in the minors — and then there are the players who were in Detroit when Blashill was an assistant.
“I’ve coached almost all of them at one point or another,” he said.
Blashill will be under plenty of pressure. The Red Wings won a Stanley Cup under Babcock in 2008, and they’ve been in the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons.
“I’ll have my own approach, and with my own approach I’m sure will come change,” Blashill said. “I coach similar in a lot of ways to the way Babs coached here. A lot of the same approaches, in terms of how we play. But I’m my own person.”
Lately, Detroit has undergone a bit of a makeover, with younger players like Nyquist, Tatar and Mrazek playing bigger roles as stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk show more signs of age. The Red Wings have advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once in the last four seasons. They lost to Tampa Bay in seven games in the opening round this year.
Although the Red Wings are no longer regulars in the latter stages of the postseason, expectations are still high in Detroit. Blashill, who was born in Detroit and raised in Michigan, embraces the opportunity to help run the team he rooted for when he was younger.
“There’s a certain part of this today that from a personal standpoint is really neat,” he said. “It’s a neat thing to be able to ultimately be a head coach for an organization that was a big part of your life growing up. That’s a pretty cool thing.”