In just about any other NHL market, a coach entering the final year of his contract with no extension would be given lame duck status. It’s the reason that, for instance, the most recent bench bosses of the Toronto Maple Leafs (current head coach Randy Carlyle and his predecessor, Ron Wilson) received extensions by the final year of their initial contracts despite delivering less-than-ideal results. If they were allowed to play out their deals without any guarantee they’d be back the following season, fans and media would speculate until their heads exploded – and, more importantly, the players they were responsible for might not buy into their on-ice vision.
However, for every rule, there’s a exception – and in this case, the exception is found in the person of Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who doesn’t have a new deal in place beyond the 2014-15 campaign. Call him a lame duck if you want, but understand virtually every other coach in hockey would kill you where you stand to be so lame.
Babcock said he wouldn’t negotiate an extension once the season begins, and barring a last-minute agreement, it looks like he’s going to wait until next spring to get something done – or move on to another challenge. And that's fine. His boss, GM Ken Holland, signed a four-year extension in August and their working relationship is strong and successful enough to withstand the pressures and questions of him working without a safety net.
If anyone is singularly focused on his job and immune to the chirping of fans and media, it’s Babcock.
His Wings haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 2008 and Detroit hasn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs since 2009, but considering Father Time has slowly stripped the franchise of its icons (most notably, surefire first ballot Hockey Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom) and sapped the youthful energy of cornerstones Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, Babcock ought to be commended just for his role in keeping alive their 23-year playoff streak. Last season in particular – when the Red Wings lost 421 man-games to injury, second only to the Penguins – Babcock’s performance was positively Mindfreakian.
Indeed, the fact Babcock has yet to be honored as the NHL’s best coach is an unsolved mystery on par with Stonehenge. But he’s nonplussed by everything outside of his core duties. Even consistent whispers he’s not exactly beloved by his players fails to affect him. He just produces – and that’s why, if he goes to the open market, there will be no shortage of franchises (hello, Toronto!) attempting to lure him into their employ.
Should Babcock decide to leave, diehard Wings fans will be nearly inconsolable, but Detroit isn’t an organization that’s built around any single individual. They’ve become the class of the NHL because their drafting and development team has been outstanding. Yes, Babcock is a major component of that process, but remember, it wasn’t that long ago when Scotty Bowman, one of the greatest hockey coaches in the sport’s history, also moved on. Holland found a capable replacement for him, and no one should doubt for a moment that can happen again. Maybe that's Jeff Blashill, coach of Detroit's American League affiliate in Grand Rapids, who signed a three-year extension in June. Or maybe it's someone else. But Holland has earned some credit and trust here, and pretending he'll be utterly lost if Babcock moves on is pessimistic in the extreme.
So if you’re a Detroit supporter, don’t get overly anxious – in a good or bad way – about Babcock’s status with the team. It’s not going to affect the season he’s about to start; it’s not going to affect his relationship with his players; and regardless of where he works next year, the Wings almost assuredly will continue to give opponents fits.