Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland knows his team will have a very good coach next season. He’s also pretty certain it won’t be Mike Babcock. That’s why after the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and a couple of other teams called about getting permission to speak with his soon-to-be-free-agent coach, Holland knew exactly what to do.
So last Sunday, he and Babcock took a drive to Grand Rapids to watch the Red Wings AHL team in the playoffs. Holland told Babcock teams had been calling and asked whether Babcock wanted to start negotiations on a new deal with the Wings or explore the market. And Babcock told Holland he wanted to see what was out there.
All of which means there’s a pretty slim chance Babcock will be behind the bench in Detroit next season. Overwhelming chances are he’ll go somewhere else – with Edmonton out of the gate as the early favorite – and Jeff Blashill, the Red Wings rising star in the minors, will be the new man. Holland is well aware a guy usually doesn’t go this far down the road just to return to his old stomping grounds.
“In this industry, when people become unrestricted free agents, the odds of them moving on are probably greater of them moving on,” Holland said. “Certainly that’s the risk we run, but at the end of the day, my feeling is I want to work with Mike Babcock, but my management style is to treat people with respect. Mike wants the opportunity to explore the market so Mike, you’ve got the opportunity to explore the market. I think he’s happy here. He wants to see if he can be happier elsewhere.”
There’s no doubt Holland would prefer to have Babcock back, which is why he offered Babcock a four-year deal last fall and again in January. But when he gets to training camp next season, he also wants to look down a bench and see a coach, whoever it is, who wants to be there for the long-term. After 10 years in the same place, even as successful as it’s been for the Red Wings, perhaps Babcock simply needs a change of scenery. And as good a coach as he is, it’s not as though the Red Wings are going to fall apart without him. As long as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are able to play at a high level – and that is definitely a season-by-season proposition at this point – the Red Wings will be competitive. And they have a pretty good nucleus of young players despite the fact they never get a high first-round draft pick.
And the reality is that as good a coach as Babcock is, the Red Wings have lost in the first round of the playoffs three of the past four seasons. Babcock’s forceful personality and his enormous amount of success on the international level sometimes obscures the fact that he has been in Detroit for 10 years and there has been only one Stanley Cup parade down Woodward Avenue.
Holland could have made Babcock and the rest of the NHL wait until July 1 to do this. As the kids say, that probably would have been a bit of a “douchie” thing to do, but it was his right to hold his coach to his contract until the final day. But Holland is clearly doing Babcock, and by extension the rest of the NHL, a favor here. He would like to have the situation cleared up by May 25, but is willing to wait until the end of the month. So if Babcock gets hired by then and sets the market, it means the teams that don’t get him will have a lot of time to explore other options.
“I didn’t want it to get to June 30 and he’s left out in the cold because teams have made their moves already and he feels he has to come back to Detroit,” Holland said. “I want Mike Babcock to be in Detroit because he wants to be in Detroit.”
So let the sweepstakes begin. Babcock is in a great situation, where he can, if he chooses, set teams against each other in a bidding war for his services. With the Maple Leafs involved, it’s not a stretch to suggest Babcock could become the first $5 million head coach in NHL history, which would raise the tide for all the other coaches out there. If he wants to coach Connor McDavid, that opportunity is waiting for him on a silver platter. And if he decides that the money is greener, but the grass isn’t on the other side, he can return to Detroit.
Don’t bet on that happening. Babcock is as good as gone. He knows it, Holland knows it and the hockey world knows it. And the Red Wings will get along just fine.