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TAMPA — Mike Babcock wants to win the Stanley Cup. He does not want to fight to make the playoffs, give a good effort as an underdog and bow out early. So now he needs to make a decision: Can the Detroit Red Wings contend again in the coming years? Or with his contract expiring and several coaching jobs available, is it time to go elsewhere?
Only he knows what he’s thinking, and he declined to discuss his future Wednesday night after the Wings were eliminated with a 2-0 loss in Game 7 of their first-round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But he might have dropped some hints.
“Our team’s not as good as it was,” he said. “It’s very evident. We battled our butt off to get into the playoffs.”
He pointed out how some had picked the Wings to miss the playoffs and many had picked them to lose in the first round. He said the Wings had given the Bolts “a real run for their money to say the least,” but the Bolts had been “bad here long enough that they were able to reload.” They drafted center Steven Stamkos first overall in 2008 and defenseman Victor Hedman second overall in 2009. Now Stamkos is 25, and Hedman is 24.
“Three of our best players are 34, 35, 37,” said Babcock, referring to Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who will be those ages next season (not that it’s been on his mind). “So when you look at it, we’re a team that has changed a ton of players, and we’re a team that’s added a lot of youth to our lineup. But right now on the outside, they don’t pick us as a Stanley Cup contender.”
The Wings have made the playoffs for 24 consecutive seasons, by far the longest active streak in the NHL. That is an incredible accomplishment, especially considering it started before the salary cap and continued despite it. No other team has made the playoffs every year since the NHL introduced the cap in 2005-06.
Thanks to success and trades, they have not drafted in the top 10 since 1991. Their average first pick has been 39th overall in that time. They have restocked their talent with good scouting, good management and good luck, and they have gotten the most out of it with good coaching.
But since winning the Cup in 2008 and going to Game 7 of the final in 2009, they have not been past the second round. They have lost in the first round three of the past four seasons and each of the last two. They have barely made the playoffs three years in a row. They have added players like Petr Mrazek, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar, and they have prospects like Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha. But what about elite talent?
“We’ve got lots of good young players, no question about it, and ideally we’ve got some good ones coming,” Babcock said. “But who’s going to replace Pav? I don’t think Pav’s going anywhere right way. But I mean, that’s what you’ve got to do. In the end, you’ve got to have big-time players up the middle and on the back to be successful. So those are questions in our organization that we work towards, drafting good and developing good, but we've been winning too much. That’s the facts.”
The Wings want Babcock back. They offered to make him the highest-paid coach in the NHL – a multi-year deal worth more than $3 million a season. General manager Ken Holland has a good relationship with him. For all the talk about power, Babcock has had lots of influence in personnel decisions.
But Babcock didn’t sign an extension, knowing he would be the rare coach in a position of power. He can raise the bar for coaching salaries, which have not risen with league revenues the way players’ salaries have, and he can choose from multiple options. The Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, San Jose Sharks and Toronto Maple Leafs all have openings. The Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues could have openings.
There are several accomplished coaches on the market, including Dan Bylsma, Pete DeBoer and Todd McLellan. Claude Julien and Ken Hitchcock could join them. But Babcock will be the first domino. He took the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to Game 7 of the Cup final. He won a Cup and almost won another with the Wings. He won two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada. Even 10 years into his Detroit tenure, even though some players hated him,his teams kept competing, kept playing with structure.
“He’s a really good coach,” said Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. “I’m sure a lot of teams want him.”
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.
The Wings probably won’t be the highest bidder. They feel offering to make Babcock the highest-paid coach in the league should be enough if he wants to be a Detroit Red Wing, that they shouldn’t have to obliterate the bank. If he stays, the Wings will keep the best coach in hockey and keep doing what they do. If he leaves, they won’t have the best coach in hockey anymore, but they will still keep doing what they do. They didn’t fall apart when Scotty Bowman stepped down as coach in 2002. They didn’t fall apart when Steve Yzerman retired in 2006 or when Nicklas Lidstrom retired in 2012.
One day the Wings will miss the playoffs. Nothing lasts forever, and the NHL is so competitive now, the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins missed the playoffs this season after winning the Cup and the Presidents’ Trophy, respectively, last season. Still, the Wings have Jeff Blashill in the American Hockey League, where he coached the Grand Rapids Griffins to the Calder Cup and won coach of the year, and they could attract another top coach if they want. Just because 10 years is a long time for any coach and the results have stagnated, you could argue it’s time for a change for them, too.
“Ken Holland and I will sit down,” Babcock said. “We’ll look at the team like we always do.”
To be a fly on that wall.
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