Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Blashill Part Of The Problem

A few weeks ago, Last Word looked at Andrei Vasilevskiy’s potential weakness that was exposed by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs. But, upon beginning this deep dive, there was more than just the goaltender that had problems. Today, we look at the new assistant coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Blashill. 

Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Blashill Part Of A Problem

Assistant coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Blashill has a long record as a coach. In 2011-12, he started his NHL coaching career as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings. From 2012-13 until 2014-15, Blashill was the head coach of the Red Wings affiliates, the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. When that tenure ended, he was promoted to head coach of the Red Wings until he was fired in 2021-22. 

His overall record as head coach of the Red Wings was 204 wins, 261 losses, and 72 overtime losses. That was good enough for a 0.447 points percentage. Blashill led the Red Wings to the playoffs just once, and they were bounced in five games. That season was his first as the head coach, and it was right when a massive roster turnover took place in Detroit. Despite the influx of youth like Tyler Bertuzzi, Moritz Seider, and of course, Dylan Larkin, Blashill couldn’t wring out more than 33 wins in a single season since the first year. 

Weird Coincidences 

After Blashill was let go by the Red Wings, they went out and acquired former Lightning assistant coach, Derek LaLonde, to replace him. Jon Cooper went out and snagged the newly released Blashill to fill that hole. It essentially became a trade-off; an up-and-coming coaching talent for a veteran coach. LaLonde replaced Blashill and led the Red Wings to a 35-37-10 record, finishing seventh in the Atlantic. In one season, albeit on a better roster than Blashill had for much of his time, he had more wins than Blashill did since the 2016 season. 

Meanwhile, Blashill assisted in the Lightning going 46-30-6 this season. Now, the Lightning are a considerably stronger team than the Red Wings, as evidenced by their three consecutive Finals appearances. But they would get knocked out by the Leafs in the first round, as everyone knows. So, what did Blashill do? How is he a part of the problem?

Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Blashill’s Defensive System

First, let’s specify, Blashill took over the defensive side of the team. He ran structures and defensive game plans. So did LaLonde when he was on the Lightning staff. So, let’s take a look at the biggest problem this season: traffic and tipped shots. Far too often did Vasilevskiy face traffic and tipped shots. How bad was it? This season, the Lightning allowed 363 tipped shots on goal between Vasilevskiy and Brian Elliott. That’s 4.4 tipped shots on the net per game. 

Before this season, since LaLonde became an assistant in 2018-19, Lightning goalies never saw more than 281 tipped shots on goal combined in a year, and never more than 3.6 tipped shots per game in a full season. To face nearly one whole tipped shot more per game than their previous worst with LaLonde is pretty significant. But, this could have just been because Blashill was joining a new team, implementing a new system, and with a group of defenders that saw turnover themselves. They lost Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta, promoted Nick Perbix and eventually Darren Raddysh, and brought in Ian Cole, Haydn Fleury, and Phillippe Myers. 

Deeper Dive 

But this isn’t new. Unfortunately. Now, the Red Wings did possess some terrible rosters for a few seasons with Blashill. However, joining the Lightning and seeing those results, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at his time with the Red Wings. 

Since 2015-16 through to 2021-22, the Red Wings allowed 2,105 tipped shots on goal across the 537 games that Blashill coached. That’s 3.92 tipped shots on goal per game. When it’s broken down season-by-season, it looks like this (in order): 3.17 per game, 3.27, 4.05, 4.41, 4.07, 3.46, and 4.88. Meanwhile, in the four seasons as Lightning assistant, the LaLonde structure allowed 3.4, 3.6, 2.5, and 3.4 tipped shots on net per game. 

Other Trends For Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Blashill

Now, tipped shots are a small part of a game. At worst, a team will allow four to five of them per game. It’s still important to limit them, of course, as they’re arguably the hardest shot to stop. But there’s another measure for difficult shots: high-danger chances allowed. With LaLonde in Tampa from 2018-19 until 2021-22, the Lightning allowed 3.0 high-danger chances per game over the course of a season just once (2021-22), but finished at 2.52, 2.53, and 2.18 in the three previous seasons, starting in 2018-19. With Blashill this season, the Lightning allowed 3.49 high-danger chances per game over the course of the year. Once again, that is a notable increase from the year prior. 

Once again, it isn’t a new trend. With Detroit, starting from his first season, his Red Wings teams allowed: 2.55, 2.56, 2.74, 3.29, 3.41, 2.86, and 3.27 high-danger chances per game. That’s notable, as Vasilevskiy has never been a top-5 goalie in high-danger save percentage outside of the 2020-21 season. Other than that lone season, where he ranked second, he has ranked 24th (0.698 HDSV% in 2018-19), 20th (0.714 in 2019-20), tied for 32nd (0.698 in 2021-22) and tied for 24th (0.746 in 2022-23). Along with the tipped shots allowed, which is in-zone structural issues, but they allowed odd-man rushes constantly. Defensemen not fully committing to pinches, or overcommitting offensively. All of that has led to these high-danger chances to get through. 

Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Blashill Wrap Up

With the salary cap crunch that the Lightning are in, upgrades to the defensive depth is unlikely. Or, at least, notable upgrades. That being said, the Lightning have two other options. Make a business decision and let go of Blashill after an unsuccessful season. The biggest reason he was hired was experience and a friendship with Cooper. But that experience is littered with a large lack of success and clear consistent issues. Or, they give him another season to figure it out and prove that he needed a full off-season and another regular season to fully implement his system. 

Regardless, the defensive structure was a huge mess all year long. It was evidenced by a lack of help in front of Vasilevskiy. It was evidenced by the aforementioned stats. Hiring a coach in Blashill, who hardly had success in Detroit, especially defensively, is reminiscent of an NFL coaching choice last year: Bill Belichick hiring good friend Matt Patricia to run the offence, when he didn’t have success on his own team with his own offence. 

The following are tweets on the Lightning defensive structure having major flaws in certain goals given up, including over-aggressive pinches: 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advanced Stats via MoneyPuck

Tipped Shot data via HockeyViz

Coaching Info via Elite Prospects

Main Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports