Mike Babcock’s coaching contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs has suddenly and dramatically altered the financial outlook for his NHL counterparts.
Babcock’s eight-year deal worth US$50 million not only makes him the highest-paid coach in the NHL, but sets an unprecedented ceiling for coaches’ salaries in the league.
It’s a rising tide that floats all boats for his brethren.
“I’m sure he got lots of thank-you notes from his peers,” player agent J.P. Barry told The Canadian Press on Thursday when the Leafs held a news conference to introduce Babcock.
“I think it absolutely changes the landscape for NHL coaches. I’d have to say it’s completely shifted.”
With an average of $6.25 million per year, Babcock’s deal moves the needle on pay that was low compared to coaches in other North American pro sports, and salaries less than many NHL players.
A Forbes.com article two years ago pegged the annual average salary of an NFL head coach at $7 million. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers was in that range until he signed an extension in 2014 worth a reported $10 million annually.
“There is no question a new bar has been set for the salary of a top head coach in the NHL,” agent Allan Walsh said in an email.
“A new arms race among head coaches has commenced. The starting gun has gone off.”
Babcock indicated to reporters in Toronto that he did homework on coaches’ pay in other leagues to prepare for the negotiating table, but he didn’t even have to make that case in the end.
“I did a lot of planning to prepare to do that,” the new Leafs coach said. “I never used any of my material.”
Babcock’s unique situation created the new money benchmark.
A man considered in the top percentile of the league’s 30 head coaches put himself on the open market at the same time teams under heavy pressure to improve quickly — Toronto, Buffalo and San Jose — had vacancies.
Given the job insecurity of an NHL head coach, not many are willing to test the open market.
“Historically in the industry, coaches and general managers sit down to negotiate an extension a year before the contract is over,” said Francois Giguere, who negotiated a multi-year extension for Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley in December.
“My experience has been that getting that security is important for coaches. My feeling is that you will not see more of a free-agent scenario.”
Giguere does believe, however, that Babcock’s financial terms put upward pressure on coaches’ salaries.
“When you look at what coaches in other professional sports make when you compare to coaches in the NHL, the coaches in the NHL are making less,” he said from Denver.
“I think there is going to be some type of correction. How much of a correction? That’s the big unknown.”
Babcock’s resume stands out in a small sample size, given there are only 30 head coaches.
The Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs every year in the decade he was behind the bench and won the Stanley Cup in 2008.
He coached Canada to Olympic gold medals in both 2010 and 2014. He’s the only coach to win Olympic gold, the Stanley Cup and a world championship.
With 750 career wins and a pair of Stanley Cups, Chicago’s Joel Quenneville has coaching status comparable to Babcock’s. The Blackhawks coach is paid a reported base salary of $2.75 million on a contract that has two years remaining on it.
“We’ll see how that all plays out,” Quenneville said Thursday in Chicago.
The Edmonton Oilers named head coach Todd McLellan their new head coach Tuesday with Sportsnet reporting his annual base salary at $3 million.
Owners who pay coaches’ salaries and general managers who negotiate the contracts in the other NHL markets might not appreciate the fanfare around Babcock’s deal.