The recent spate of coach signings has revealed two very clear notions. The first is that, as was the case with the players more than two decades ago, full salary disclosure would do wonders for the salaries of the 30 men behind NHL benches. The second is that all coaches and would-be NHL coaches should send Mike Babcock a Thank You card and box of chocolates.
The Minnesota Wild unveiled Bruce Boudreau as their new coach Tuesday afternoon and are paying him somewhere in the range of $3 million a year. This is the same Bruce Boudreau who was just fired in Anaheim, whose teams have won just five playoff rounds in nine years and can’t seem to win a Game 7 to save their lives. Dave Tippett, who hasn’t been involved in a playoff game in four years, won an organizational power struggle with GM Don Maloney and was rewarded with more responsibility as the executive vice president of the hockey department and a new five-year deal worth $4 million a season.
This comes just one year after the Deal to End All Deals™, signed by Mike Babcock with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That contract set the gold standard, giving Babcock eight years of security and an annual stipend of $6.25 million. At the time, almost everyone agreed that deal was an outlier, that a team with an unlimited budget threw so much money and term at one of the top coaches in the world that he couldn’t possibly turn it down. Few expected Babcock’s high tide would raise the level of all ships, or at least as quickly as it has.
Instead, Babcock’s deal has had an inflationary effect on the coaching industry. As legendary as Joel Quenneville is behind the bench, there’s no way he would have signed a three-year extension for $6 million a season with Chicago if not armed with the Babcock deal. Ever the shrewd GM, Stan Bowman realized early that it would be best for the organization to get Quenneville locked up early so as not to create a possible bidding war for his services. Once Darryl Sutter decided whether or not he wants to sign with the Los Angeles Kings or go elsewhere, he’ll be able to line his accomplishments up favorably against both Quenneville and Babcock when it comes to negotiating a salary.
And why is this happening? In part, because coaches are turning the principles supply-and-demand on their ear by tacitly letting the world in on what was once a well-kept secret. And it’s working. The reason why coaching salaries are going up is that everyone is learning how much these guys make. It was the same rationale the NHL Players’ Association used when it ushered itself into the modern era under the stewardship of Bob Goodenow. Prior to that, teams were content to keep salaries secret and allow fans and players to guess what other players were making. It worked hugely in their favor and served to keep salaries down for decades.
Which is why I never quite understood why coaches seemed so reticent about doing this. For the past couple of decades they’ve watched fourth-line players who don’t have as much impact on the team as they have rocket past them at the pay window, yet they’ve been content to keep their financial details to themselves to their detriment.
There’s always going to be a natural drag on coaching salaries, simply because there are only 30 jobs available and hundreds of qualified people vying for them. But teams have also realized that in a salary cap environment, there is a finite amount of money they can spend on players. But when it comes to getting a coach that fits your plan and you think will make you better, there are no budgetary restraints. (Which makes it even stranger that the Ottawa Senators have eight players on their roster who make more than $3 million a year, but couldn’t agree with Boudreau on money.)
And look at the Central Division. The men behind the bench in the Central are Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock, Peter Laviolette, Lindy Ruff, Patrick Roy and Paul Maurice – all coaching heavyweights. They had to make a move like this one to keep pace in the best division in the league. Boudreau fills that bill quite nicely, but it’s going to cost the Wild. And armed with the terms of that deal and others, it’s also going to give forward to the next coach who comes along.
In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest that by the time Babcock finishes his term with the Maple Leafs in 2022-23, he won’t be the highest-paid coach in the NHL.