General managers, prepare your pitches and owners, open your chequebooks. The Mike Babcock sweepstakes could begin any time now.
The Detroit Red Wings were eliminated from the playoffs with a 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 on Wednesday night. Immediately the attention turned to Babcock, the hottest coaching free agent on the market.
In his post-game news conference, Babcock declined to directly address his future but left clues he may not be long for Detroit. Babcock wondered aloud who’s going to replace 37-year-old star Pavel Datsyuk down the road, and that same question can be asked for 35-year-old captain Henrik Zetterberg and 34-year-old defenceman Niklas Kronwall.
“Any way you look at it, we’re a team that’s changed a ton of players, we’re a team that’s added a lot of youth to our lineup, and right now on the outside they don’t pick us as a Stanley Cup contender,” Babcock told reporters at Amalie Arena.
Babcock won a Cup with Detroit in 2008 and reached the final in 2009. Before that he got to within one victory of the title in 2003 with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
Throw in two Olympic gold medals with Canada and even though he has never won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, Babcock is at the top of just about every list for teams with vacancies. Babcock is considered the best in the business.
“Something I’ve recognized is just his Xs and Os, he understands the game very well,” Detroit defenceman Brendan Smith said Monday at Joe Louis Arena. “He’s got great practices, he gets you prepared in that sense. For the most part he can analyze the game very well.”
Currently four other teams are without head coaches: the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks. Other jobs could also come open like if Dave Tippett and the Arizona Coyotes part ways, the Boston Bruins fire Claude Julien or the Edmonton Oilers decide to move on from interim coach Todd Nelson.
If Babcock is looking to join a Cup contender sooner rather than later, he wouldn’t be a fit in all of those spots. The Leafs could back up a dump truck full of money to his Saskatoon house, but a rebuilding effort may take the lustre off coaching in Toronto.
Buffalo is starting from the bottom with Jack Eichel and Edmonton with Connor McDavid. Those stars make the Sabres more attractive, and owner Terry Pegula can shell out enough to make Babcock the highest-paid coach, but it still could be some time before they contend.
After firing first-time head coach Craig Berube, the Flyers could be in the market for Babcock.
“You’re looking for the coach that fits your team, obviously (who) thinks the same way to some degree,” Flyers GM Ron Hextall said on a recent conference call. “In the end we’re looking for the guy who can take this group to another level not only short term, but long term.”
Philadelphia missing the playoffs two of the past three seasons and a blue-line makeover could scare Babcock off. But owner Ed Snider would certainly pony up if he thinks Babcock can make the difference.
His ability to be a difference-maker outside the salary cap is what makes Babcock the top candidate in so many places. A big-budget team like Toronto or Boston could spend more than perhaps Detroit is willing to on Babcock’s next contract.
Wherever he goes, Babcock should become the highest-paid coach, surpassing Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks (US$2.75 million). Depending how high Babcock sets the bar, former Sharks coach Todd McLellan may even be a $3 million coach as everyone’s second choice.