No single player in the NHL will be this offseason's most-heavily sought free agent. That honor belongs to Detroit's current head coach Mike Babcock. The winningest head coach in franchise history and the longest current-serving head coach in the NHL, Babcock has been with Detroit since the 2004-05 lockout ended. Through one Stanley Cup and ten out of ten playoff appearances, Babcock coached more games for the Red Wings than anybody not named Sid Abel or Jack Adams.
Having refused so far to sign a third contract extension with the Wings and having carried an increased caginess and/or agitation with the press for asking the question, Babcock is going to answer the question on his own soon. After his team's game seven loss to Tampa on Wednesday night, he again refused to answer questions about his status, saying that he'll deal with this crap in a few days.
While the crowing yahoos in sports media have been speculating all season long that Babcock running into this season as a lame duck coach was the surefire sign he had one foot out the door, the pieces are starting to come together to the point where even the more-careful among sportswriters like Nick Cotsonika (of the actual Yahoo!) is starting to read that Babcock may be done with the Wings.
It's hard to speculate where Babcock will end up. How does he weigh money versus winning? How much say does he want in personnel? Does he want to stay with the Wings and try to be like Bill Belichick, who stayed with the New England Patriots, turned over the team and won another Super Bowl? Does he want to join Hockey Canada comrades Bob Nicholson and Peter Chiarelli in Edmonton and take over an Oilers team with young talent and Connor McDavid on the way? Does he want to join former Anaheim colleague Tim Murray in Buffalo and take over a Sabres team with young talent and Jack Eichel on the way? What about the Flyers or the Leafs or ... Even he might not even know yet. It might depend on the day.
But the day of reckoning is coming.
I have to admit that I do feel currently that Babcock will be weighing all his options and that when he's done, he won't be the coach of the Red Wings next season. Here's why I think he's gone and why I'm already making peace with the possibility.
The Trail of Bread Crumbs
Although it's a concept so simple that even the most shock-jock radio dummy could build an entire mountain out of the molehill, Babcock's decision to go into the regular season without an extension in place is a reasonable start to this trail. He can't get to free agency without that. From there, it's been clips and quips from throughout the season:
- The immediate and aggressive negative reaction to Bob Duff's report from December that an extension was imminent.
- While Babcock has always been straightforward about his relationship with Ken Holland, an increasing number of quips from him to the press this season have hinted at a cycle of venting frustrations and then clarifying later, which is a worrying sign.
- The famed "grass isn't always greener" morsel quote has faded farther and farther away since Mike Babcock actually said it.
- In place of the grass not always being greener, Babcock has seemed to go with "I like winning" as something of a standard deflection to questions about his status. He's generally couched it in terms of "...and that's what I'm focusing on doing right now," but it's hard to look at that and figure the Red Wing's failure to escape the first round again doesn't play in.
- To add to the last three points, Babcock recently told the press that he didn't think he even had a playoff team in terms of talent as of last July 5th. Again, this is couched in Babcock speaking positively about what his team had accomplished, but we're not exactly stretching the boundaries of credibility to say that a consistent application of that mindset does not speak positively for the possibility of Babcock wanting to come back.
- Tying it all back together and going back to Cotsonika's recent piece, Babcock specifically mentions how the Lightning have become contenders with their young talent while three of Detroit's best players are getting farther from the wrong side of 30. He's praising the young talent while simultaneously asking if it's good enough to contend.
The Other Signs Along the Path
I'll have to admit that I've had a great deal of fun watching the Babcock to Toronto rumors hit a fever pitch and then die as quickly as the Leafs' season did, but there are a lot of teams with head coaching vacancies and a lot of reasons Babcock might want to take on those challenges. Heck, just about every team outside a select few like Chicago or New York could or should be willing to dump their current bench boss for Babs.
- Toronto seems to be committing to the need for a lengthy rebuild, which might cut them out of contention, but they're the center of the hockey universe and can likely give him the roster power people seem convinced he wants. From what I've been told, winning a cup with the Leafs is the single-most important thing a Stanley Cup-winning and two-time Gold Medal-winning coach can do.
- Edmonton is basically where Toronto wants to be in a few years right now and they're on the cusp of grabbing Connor McDavid first overall. If Babcock wants to compete for a cup with high draft picks, he could do worse than a recently feckless Oilers team.
- Buffalo won't have McDavid, but they've got the 2nd overall pick and a good mix of talent in need of somebody to put it all together and make it work. They're going to push very hard for him.
- Pittsburgh can promise a team with two world class centers, a Norris-caliber defenseman, and a dire need to make a bunch of grinders play well enough to support them. It's almost a do-over with what's gone in in Detroit only with younger core players.
- San Jose has strength down the middle like Babcock likes.
- While both Boston and St. Louis currently have coaches, they also have underperforming rosters and pissed off fans.
- Philadelphia has... I don't know, money and a very strong desire to hire a good coach?
- New Jersey needs a coach too and they're still relevant in certain parts of New Jersey.
Do the Red Wings Want or Need Babcock Back?
There's no doubt that Mike Babcock is among the very best coaches in the NHL, if not the absolute best. I have absolutely no doubt that Mike Babcock instantly makes any team he coaches a better team. I also have little doubt that Mike Babcock has done a fine job coaching the Red Wings. I think he's a great coach, I'm just not sure he's the right coach for Detroit anymore.
I have to admit that I greatly admire Babcock's coaching style. One of the highlights of the 24/7 series for the Red Wings and Leafs was how Babcock's largely professional attitude and us-vs-them mentality in regards to the media contrasted against Randy Carlyle's insistence that his faltering players simply weren't trying hard enough (not to mention Carlyle's inability to work a toaster). I think Babcock's lessons about being an "every-dayer" and keeping one's head high in defeat resonate well. I think he pushes players to be their best and has a firm grasp on changing hockey tactics.
All that said, I think his results are both bolstered by how well he's done against adversity (especially adversity caused by injury) and are held back by how he's failed to escape the 2nd round in six straight seasons, even when the talent level of his team has been high enough to achieve that. Now seven years removed from his Stanley Cup championship with Detroit, hindsight makes it difficult to separate out how much of that team's success was having a ridiculously talented collection of players and how much of it was Babcock pushing that ridiculously talented group to the best overall team performance in the analytics era.
Even the best teacher after a time is going to have his message go stale. The core of the Red Wings has been together for a long time. While Babcock and team captain Henrik Zetterberg have often stated they have a good relationship where they share ideas between them, there have long been whispers that Babcock isn't exactly the most popular coach. Would a fresh perspective be a help or harm to the team in this state?
Things have changed since 2008, both the team and Babcock. The Red Wings don't have a team that's ridiculously talented compared to the rest of the league anymore and Babcock no longer runs a high-octane system. If you go by the belief that the Wings didn't have a talented enough roster going into the season to make the playoffs, then it's a great credit to Mike Babcock that the low-event style of hockey he preached got them there. However, if you believe that the level of talent on the team underperformed, then just as much blame falls to Babcock's shoulders.
Babcock glibly told the press this summer that if he starts listening to advice from reporters then he might as well join them, but fans and media alike have professed to being baffled by some of his decision-making for years. Patience with Babcock's decisions have paid off in the way of making Justin Abdelkader a 20-goal scorer and Luke Glendening a game-changing defensive forward. Babcock's stubbornness has also led to things like Jonathan Ericsson spending two seasons failing to play up to top-four defensive standards against one season where he did. Mike Babcock's endorsement is why Dan Cleary spent 72 out of Detroit's 89 games this season on the team's roster as a healthy scratch. You take the good with the bad.
For as much as his defensive schemes are lauded, an overlooked portion of Mike Babcock's system is how little offense his teams create from the blue line. Obviously, losing Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski without adequate replacement will hamper a team's ability to score from up high. However, by this point, Babcock owns responsibility for how his players have developed under him and his track record with defensemen has not been good:
- Niklas Kronwall went from a potential future Norris Candidate to in over his head. No doubt that the roster limitations have forced Kronwall to be exposed to tougher situations, but is that all on Ken Holland?
- Jakub Kindl is a former 19th-overall pick and has been on Babcock's roster since 2010-11. In that time, he's shown flashes of top-four capabilities, but has mostly disappointed in a sheltered role. While grinding forwards will always have a spot in Babcock's top six, offensive defensemen have never been given consistent opportunities to show or sow growth under Babcock.
- Brendan Smith is in the same boat as Kindl. Smith was picked prior to PK Subban in the 2007 draft. Both players have similar styles, but Subban had played nearly 100 NHL regular season games before Smith got his very first opportunity. While Subban's high-risk/high-reward style eventually rewarded the Canadiens with a Norris-winner, Smith has struggled to produce under Mike Babcock's system.
- Jonathan Ericsson was a big-bodied project defenseman from the time he joined the Wings. He was consistently turnover-prone, unable to use his size and skating ability to his advantage, and completely useless shooting from the point due to some sort of disorder that makes a guy shoot the puck into shinpads instead of around them. Then, after years of waiting for him to grow into his role, the switch was flipped and Ericsson put together a collection of 80+ good NHL games between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Unfortunately, he suffered an injury which severely derailed him. Despite showing a regression in his skills for more than half a season, Babcock kept him on the team's top pairing for this entire campaign.
To clarify, I'm not leaving Detroit's defensive woes at the feet of Mike Babcock and saying he should drag that load by himself. Ken Holland deserves a lot of the blame not only for his failure to provide better defensemen but also for what appears to be "big-picture" meddling with the roster which kept more-preferred prospects in Grand Rapids while Babcock languished with the players he couldn't get to perform better. I'm just saying there's reason to say that Babcock's treatment of the players he was given brings into question his ability to adequately develop defensive prospects, something that is going to be extremely important to the Red Wings in the coming years.
Right Man, Wrong Time?
If Detroit is truly at the very end of their window to compete without additional young talent on their roster stepping up, then Ken Holland has already positioned Detroit with a replacement coach who brings a fresh prospective, a slightly different style, but who is also familiar with the progression of the team's youth, Detroit's system, and the Red Wings' culture. Jeff Blashill has already taken players like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar to glory by winning a Calder Cup with the Griffins in 2013 and he already has experience with the team's veterans after having spent a season as an assistant with the Wings.
If the team isn't ready to lose Blashill from Grand Rapids right away and needs a similar coach who has experience working with Red Wings players, then the team will also have Todd McLellan to talk to. McLellan and the Sharks agreed to mutually part ways earlier this month, giving him the potential freedom to reunite with players who were still on the team when McLellan was Babcock's assistant for the 2008 cup run.
Heck, if we want to go after a different former Babcock apprentice who is looking for a job, Paul MacLean has been available as a coach since December.
While none of these coaches (nor anybody else who is available) has the same pedigree as Mike Babcock, none of them are carrying the same amount of Red Wings baggage that Babs has either.
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Mike Babcock officially becomes a free agent on July 1st, so we've got two more months to worry about what's going to happen with him. In the end, it's entirely possible that he doubles down on his "grass isn't always greener" stance and decides to stay on with the Red Wings to see what he can do in another reloading year for the Red Wings. If he does sign back on, I expect that things will be different in Detroit regardless. Mike Babcock isn't going to stay with Detroit for the chance to extend a playoff streak. He wants another Stanley Cup.