Depending upon the whims of the management teams in Boston and St. Louis, we could be in for one of the most fascinating off-season games of coaching musical chairs we’ve seen in years – perhaps even ever.
With the Detroit Red Wings eliminated from the playoffs, the Mike Babcock Sweepstakes™ are about to begin. Todd McLellan is already on the market and Ken Hitchcock’s future is uncertain in St. Louis. Meanwhile, the new GM in Boston will have the opportunity to decide whether or not Claude Julien is going to be his head coach moving forward.
All of which will make July 1 one of the biggest days on the hockey calendar. Babcock, for example, will become a free agent on that date if he fails to re-sign with the Red Wings and not a day before. His contract expires June 30 and any team that even thinks of approaching him before then will have a tampering charge on its hands very, very quickly.
All four are deans of the NHL coaching community and all four have Stanley Cup rings they earned either as head coaches or assistants. Babcock is eager to set a new salary standard for coaches, somewhere in the $4 million to $5 million range per season, which means none of the others will come cheaply, either. One wonders, though, if the laws of supply and demand might work against Babcock. With so many high-quality coaches suddenly available, might that impede Babcock’s leverage? Probably not, particularly when big-market teams can pay coaches whatever they want without worrying about a salary cap.
But here’s the thing. Of those four coaches, two of them missed the playoffs and the other two couldn’t get their teams beyond the first round of the post-season. Hitchcock’s St. Louis Blues lost in the first round for the third straight season, meaning Hitchcock’s teams have been beyond Round 1 only once in the past 11 years. Babcock’s Red Wings lost in the first round for the third time in four years.
So maybe, just maybe, whoever ends up with these four guys might not be getting the genius-cum-miracle worker they’re expecting. It would certainly be a good start for some teams and perhaps an element that might put a contending team over the top in others, but to think that any of these men will come in and be the sole difference maker is a stretch.
The teams that are struggling, such as Edmonton, Buffalo and Toronto, are going to need a lot more than just a coach to turn their programs around. Some of the contenders who have underachieved, such as the Sharks and the Blues, couldn’t get over their shortcomings with some of the greatest coaching minds behind their own bench, so there’s obviously more at play.
As one GM put it for an upcoming piece for The Hockey News, the coach is just one of a number of vital jobs in an organization. If the rest of your hockey department isn’t functional and doing a good job, the resume of the man behind the bench won’t mean a whole lot.
“These guys can’t do it on their own,” he said. “They don’t play goal, they don’t draft, they’re not over at the U-18 tournament, they’re not pro scouting, they’re not coaching the farm team and developing the young players.”
That’s primarily why there’s probably at least a 50-50 chance Babcock won’t be back with the Red Wings next season. If your trusty correspondent knows Red Wings GM Ken Holland as well as he thinks he does, this is how the scenario might play out:
Holland and Babcock will sit down soon to discuss Babcock’s future with the organization. Holland will make it clear he would like Babcock to stay on and the Red Wings are prepared to make him a very rich man. They probably won’t offer $5 million, but the number will certainly start with a four. Few in the business are better at judging a players’ value than Holland and the GM will do the same with his coach. Holland will make his pitch and allow Babcock to make his decision.
But one thing Holland will not do is beg Babcock to stay. And if Babcock comes to the conclusion that he needs a new challenge in his life or that he can get more money somewhere else, Holland will pat him on the back, thank him for all his years of service and wish him good luck and happy trails. Holland has long been of the attitude that if a person’s heart is set on leaving, he is not going to stand in that person’s way.
And if Babcock leaves, Holland knows he has an NHL-ready coach in Jeff Blashill and the Red Wings will move on. And they probably won’t miss a beat, either with or without Mike Babcock behind the bench.