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DETROIT — He came last. He walked down the tunnel with his team lined up before him. As he was introduced before Thursday night’s opener at Joe Louis Arena, his name flickered in laser light at center ice, all caps – MIKE BABCOCK – right above the word “HOCKEYTOWN” and the Detroit Red Wings logo. The fans cheered. He waved.
Was it hello? Or the beginning of goodbye?
It will be entirely up to him.
This is fact: Babcock is in the final year of his contract. He and general manager Ken Holland spoke about an extension in May or June. They went away for the summer without a deal, partly because Holland was in the final year of his contract and waiting on an extension of his own. Holland signed a four-year extension in August.
Babcock and Holland talked again in September. They are not actively negotiating at this point. That does not mean they won’t talk during the season – even though they won’t talk about it publicly now that the puck has dropped.
Repeatedly, Babcock has said he is in no rush, is not worried, is happy in Detroit, has a good relationship with Holland and knows the grass isn’t always greener. Yet he hasn’t signed.
“I expect as the year wears on, he and I will have ongoing conversations as to his situation,” said Holland on Thursday night before the Wings went out and beat the Boston Bruins, 2-1. “I’m hopeful that between now and the end of June that we can find a solution to keep Mike behind the bench.”
This is fact: Babcock’s salary is $2 million.
This is believed to be fact: The Chicago Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville is the highest-paid coach in the NHL with a salary of $2.75 million.
No one will comment on specifics, so this is informed speculation: Based on history, the Wings do not low-ball. They look at comparables to come up with what they feel are fair offers. They likely have offered Babcock a multi-year deal at a salary that at least matches Quenneville’s. Babcock has won one Stanley Cup and come within a game of another in Detroit; Quenneville has won two Cups in Chicago.
This is obvious: Babcock is not satisfied with the Wings’ offer, and he’s in a great position.
Babcock is the best coach in the NHL. Last season alone, he won his second Olympic gold medal with Team Canada, passed Scotty Bowman and Jack Adams to become the Wings’ all-time leader in wins, and extended the Wings’ playoff streak to 23 seasons, even though they suffered key injuries and relied upon kids and call-ups. He was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year.
He can afford to wait. He can see how the season goes. He can re-sign at any time or become a hot free agent. He has nothing left to prove in Detroit and nothing tying him to the team or the city after this season. His youngest child will graduate from high school in the spring. It is a rare opportunity.
But if he hasn’t already, he has to decide what he wants. Money? Power? The best chance to win? A new challenge?
In Detroit, he would be paid like the top coach in the league, have a stable GM with whom he works well, a team that spends to the salary cap and a group of up-and-coming young players.
Could he make more elsewhere – $4 million a year, even $5 million a year – and set a new standard for NHL coaches? Probably. The Toronto Maple Leafs kept Randy Carlyle after last season only because they didn’t feel there was a better option. They print money. They could blow away the Wings if Babcock becomes available.
Could he have control of personnel decisions elsewhere? Probably. Two things, though: It’s not like Babcock hasn’t had input in Detroit, and it hasn’t always gone well (see Cleary, Dan). He loves his summers in Saskatchewan, too.
Could he find a better chance to win? Maybe. It depends on what jobs are open. The Leafs do not present a better chance to win. The St. Louis Blues or the San Jose Sharks or some other team might. Wings stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are aging; replacing them will be a key issue.
Could he need a new challenge? Definitely. He has worried about that in the past. But he has said recently that isn’t as much of a factor anymore because the Wings have turned over so much of the roster. It’s like coaching a new team.
Babcock and Holland are cutting off communication with the public because they don’t want this to become any more of a distraction than it already is. They don’t want to tell people if they’re meeting, let alone when they’re meeting or what happened in their meeting, because that will only lead to more questions and more columns like this one.
“We don’t need that,” Holland said.
This is going to be a constant story, anyway. It already is in Toronto, and it will only get worse with every Leafs loss. People are going to parse every word Babcock and Holland say – and sometimes get the wrong impression. Maybe Babcock will love to hate it. Maybe he will hate it.
Look at this week: Babcock made some comments about a player being sent to the minors, and it was blown up into a conflict between the coach and the GM in the context of his contract. He was not happy. (Babcock and Holland often have disagreements about personnel, like most coaches and GMs, but usually they keep it private. One of Holland’s strengths is dealing with strong-willed coaches and putting winning first. He once worked with Scotty Bowman, remember. He and Babcock are friends. Their wives are friends. They’re big boys. They’re fine.)
It’s all going to be OK in the end. Babcock and Holland can handle each other. They can handle the media (though all this should make Babcock ask himself if he wants to deal with the Toronto media every day).
If Babcock stays, that means he’s truly happy where he is and the Wings will continue to have the best coach in the league.
If Babcock leaves, that means he got what he wanted elsewhere. The Wings will be weaker but prepared. They have Jeff Blashill waiting in the minors, where he won a championship, won a coach-of-the-year award and tutored those up-and-coming youngsters. They kept him from interviewing for NHL jobs and signed him to a three-year extension over the summer for a reason.