The Detroit Red Wings have secured one piece of their future. Will the second domino fall soon?
First, GM Ken Holland. There was the occasional whisper of him leaving Detroit for a new challenge, but the odds were always slim. He's fuelled the Red Wings' seemingly endless success for decades, including the last 17 years as GM. The franchise is synonymous with finding diamonds in the rough, including current stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and Holland has always been the mastermind behind that brilliant drafting.
Worry not, Wings fans. Your GM is back. Holland has signed a four-year extension, keeping him in Hockeytown through 2017-18. Owner Mike Illitch's statement mentioned stability as "key to success of any organization," and that Holland is crucial for maintaining that stability. It makes sense with a new arena all the way and this team in serious transition.
On the surface, 23 straight playoff berths say it's business as usual in Detroit, but we know that's not the case. This team barely squeezed into the playoffs last season, and Datsyuk and Zetterberg seem destined to battle health problems for the rest of their careers. Jimmy Howard's goaltending hasn't met the expectation set by the six-year, $31.75-million deal he commenced last season. With the team's future success in flux, it's good news for the Wings to have Holland manning the ship.
More good news: the youth movement is in full-swing, and Detroit seems more wiling than ever to give youngsters chances to play. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar look like the latest late-round draft steals, poised to become building blocks for years to come at forward. Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan, who were higher-regarded prospects than Nyquist and Tatar when drafted, made the team last year as well. Anthony Mantha, who scored a goal a game in junior last season, could be the exception to Detroit's unwritten rule of making every drafted prospect wait three to four years before making the NHL. That's what happens when Detroit gets a top-20 pick after none from 2006-2012. The Wings' blueline is solid if unspectacular, with clever college signings like Danny DeKeyser complementing solid vets like Niklas Kronwall. Maybe now that Holland has a contract, he can work on upgrading the defense corps further with an acquisition like, say, Mike Green.
So while the Wings could have some growing pains – we have them just out of the post-season in our 2014-15 projections – they could reload fast. Their 2014 first-rounder, Dylan Larkin, is the type of tenacious two-way player who fits the organization perfectly. Holland already has the Wings poised for a rise, even if it takes a year or two.
The question is: who will guide this young team behind the bench? Mike Babcock did a masterful job with a young group that was thrown to the wolves last season. He overcame major adversity to get this team to the playoffs. He was my Jack Adams pick. But will he be back? Does he want to come back? Does Detroit want him back?
Babcock's contract expires after this season. He's said he won't negotiate until he can hammer things out with Holland in person, likely later this month. He's also said he won't discuss his deal at all during the season if a deal isn't struck before Game 1. That leaves a smallish window to lock Babcock up. The pressure is on. Rumors have also swirled that Babcock's no-nonsense style of coaching rubs some players the wrong way, and even that it scares some free agents away. Babcock went on record saying if Detroit is concerned about free agents not liking him, "then I should coach somewhere else."
Amid that doom and gloom came whispers Babcock would leave after this season, and that the Leafs should top the list of teams hoping to woo him. But make no mistake, Wings fans: this Holland signing is fantastic news if you're hoping Babcock returns long-term. It's a well-known fact Babcock has a great relationship with Holland, and that he wanted to learn Holland's long-term fate before he decided his own. Now he has that answer, and it's far more likely we see Babcock locked up with his good buddy on another long-term deal.
For anyone dreaming of Babcock coaching another team, the fantasy looks a lot more like to stay nothing more than that.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin