Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock joined the Ryan and Rico show on 105.1 FM in Detroit this morning and gave some slightly comforting answers to questions about a tough offseason for the Red Wings. Thanks to commenter pgwixson for bringing this to our attention. You can read his paraphrases of the interview and his take on it in the comments of this morning's Quick Hits, and you can also listen to the interview here.
I'm going to cover this topically rather than chronologically. Unlike the rest of the Red Wings fanbase, Babcock was thrilled with free agency from the standpoint that Red Wings GM Ken Holland offered "no bad contracts" to any players, They targeted certain guys who opted to go elsewhere rather than come to Detroit, but from Babcock's perspective, the Red Wings didn't partake in the "silly season" of overpaying players. "But what about Kyle Quincey and Daniel Cleary?!" you may ask, ready to pull your hair out.
Babcock didn't talk about Kyle Quincey, nor was any reference made to him presumably because Cleary's dominated the conversation among Red Wings fans, but he had a lot to say about Cleary. Babcock talked about Cleary being on a "great contract" which didn't count for much against the cap. He brought up Cleary's efforts to get healthy again, working with the trainers during the offseason and traveling to see people to help him improve the condition of his knee. He made it clear that the "best players are going to play" for the Red Wings, and that includes Cleary if he manages to prove that he's one of the 12 best forwards on the team. Is bringing back Cleary going to prove to be a good decision? Not even Babcock knows, but he knows it's a "calculated decision and risk." He made sure to point out that Cleary is only one of many decisions he and Holland make "each and every day." In much the same way Holland defends loyalty to his players, Babcock says they make "lots of bad decisions" but "way more good."
Speaking about the rest of free agency, Babcock addressed the notion that players don't want to come to Detroit because of him and the way he coaches. He seemed to laugh it off by suggesting that those people should ask Sidney Crosby and Shea Weber what they think of him after coaching them to two gold medals in consecutive Olympic competitions. Babcock offered his own idea that if he's the issue, it's probably more to do with the fact he's got one year left on his current contract, and players don't want to sign for five years only to have him for one. Almost as if challenging people who question his methods or philosophy, he said that if players don't want to be coached, then they shouldn't come to Detroit; but if they want to be pushed to be their best, they should take advantage of that opportunity in Detroit.
Babcock talked about the circumstances of his contract and his feelings on staying in Detroit beyond the coming season. He joked that both Holland and he are "on the lake" on vacation right now, so there's no talk about an extension coming anytime soon. However, he "like[s] being here" and thinks his relationship with Holland is "second to none." He mentioned that (like any normal relationship between two people) there are going to be times when they "battle" and it's not going to be "cozy" every day. Overall, though, the two of them have a mutual understanding and he thinks they work well together.
As for his actual job coaching the Detroit Red Wings, he likes what the team has "coming." He emphasized the young players in the organization quite a bit and talked about the difficulty in finding the right time to bring them up to the NHL ranks, wondering how much (more) time they needed in the minors. He likes the young group and thinks they're getting better, but again emphasized that the "biggest thing is not to rush them." He's committed to the growth of the current team and stated the Red Wings plan is not to be bad for ten years.
On the roster and what need to change from last season to improve, he talked about players staying on the ice. Babcock claimed to have talked to captain Henrik Zetterberg, who said he's feeling good, and Pavel Datsyuk also is working his way back to 100%. The team needs to have its best players healthy, in addition to everyone else, but especially the guys at the top. He talked about the season Jimmy Howard had and how he's been working to get back to where he knows he's capable of, talking about how athletes are proud people and work to fight their way back to the level they're capable of playing. Finally, he mentioned that the team absolutely needs to improve on the back end. He talked in conjunction with the idea of young players about the puck-moving defensemen the team has in the minors and about how they need to grow and develop in order for the team to be successful. The back end growth needs to show itself in getting the puck and getting it going on offense in a hurry from their own zone, something the Red Wings struggled with mightily last season.
Babcock also touched on what motivates him and the way he works with the organization and the addition of Tony Granato. As for what he said, I'm glad he can at least see some of the problems the team currently has in terms of personnel and the need for better puck-handlers on the defense. He talked about Cleary not bringing anything to the team last season, and while he emphasized they would play the best players and while I also understand that now is not the time for Babcock to speak poorly of anybody on the roster, I'm still not entirely comforted that we'll see the best team on the ice next season coming out of training camp. It's interesting to see that Babcock didn't find the Red Wings' contracts to Quincey and Cleary to be overpayment, and even thought (not "defended") the Cleary contract to be a great one.
I thought it was also awkward when Babcock defended himself by referring to Crosby and Weber being coached by him on the Canadian Olympic team. It's one thing to see these players in that setting for a month or so when they're spending a short time with each other, and another to spend an entire NHL season, possibly year after year, with him. . But it is still a testament to what Hockey Canada thinks of Babcock that he was brought back for the 2014 Games, and it's one validation of his abilities as a head coach.
The one thing I take away is that I wish it were October already. Something to remember that Babcock reminded everyone is that it's the offseason, and while there are always hockey things to be done because the nature of the NHL season these days means there's hardly any offseason for any of the people involved in the NHL, the organization does have time before the season starts, so there are still battles to be had in training camp, and there is still time before the season for Holland and Babcock to negotiate an extension. It's a long offseason, folks.