Mike Babcock was only certain that he owed it to himself and his family to go through this process as the league's most-prized free agent.
Brace yourself for a barrage of rumors and gossip — some of them even laced with a few facts — about Mike Babcock’s imminent departure from Detroit.
Less than 48 hours into the trial separation between the Red Wings and their coach, there were reports of meetings with potential suitors in Toronto and Buffalo. And more are certain with Babcock scheduled to arrive today in Prague, where the sport’s royalty are gathering for the annual World Hockey Championships. Every handshake and conversation Babcock has with anyone associated with another NHL club will be interpreted — and more likely misinterpreted — as a clue to his next coaching destination.
Babcock insists he doesn’t know himself how this will all end; he was only certain that he owed it to himself and his family to go through this process as the league’s most-prized free agent. The Wings agreed, however reluctantly, to allow him to court other teams. What choice do they have, after all? His contract expires on June 30, and the best they can hope for is that he gives them a chance to match the best offer he gets.
But if this is about more than money, and Babcock has insisted all along that it is, then it is unlikely that he and the Wings will renew their vows with another long-term contract. More and more, it feels like their 10-year relationship is over.
There is no shortage of opportunities — or opportunists. Vacancies include Buffalo, New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Jose and Toronto. Edmonton is interviewing candidates, though it still retains Todd Nelson as its interim coach. Claude Julien is a lame duck in Boston, where the new GM will decide his fate. And Ken Hitchcock could be out in St. Louis, which has given him time to consider his future there.
Babcock heads a strong list of coaching candidates, and it’s likely the dominoes won’t start falling into place until he makes a decision on where he intends to coach. While he has been strongly linked to Edmonton — which makes sense for a lot of reasons — so has Todd McLellan, his former assistant in Detroit.
Other coaching candidates include Dan Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 2009, John Torterella, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2003, Randy Carlyle, Peter DeBoer, Paul McLean, Dallas Eakins and Guy Boucher. And if Hitchcock and Julien wind up on the outs with their teams, that would put two more Cup-winning coaches in the job market. Hitchcock won with Dallas in 1999, Julien with the Bruins in 2011.
All of which makes it improbable that the NHL’s version of speed dating will drag on for very long — at least as far as Detroit is concerned. The Wings have given Babcock a soft deadline of May 25 — two weeks from today — and clearly he is wasting little time.
He was in Buffalo on Sunday, apparently meeting with Sabres owners and management, according to reports by The Associated Press. And when the AP chases you down at an airport for comment, it’s big news. The world’s largest news-gathering organization doesn’t waste time on small stories.
Reports out of Toronto were conflicting — naturally. One talking head said Babcock and the Leafs would soon meet for serious talks; another said they’d already met. It’s more likely those talks will be held in Prague this week, when he doubtless with have more discussions with other clubs.
Notable among them is Edmonton — and this one makes the most sense for a variety of reasons. Interestingly, the Oilers also appear seriously interested in McLellan, whom they’ve already interviewed. McLellan is coaching Team Canada this week in the world tournament. It also could be that all the talk of the imminent hiring of McLellan is more designed to create a sense of urgency in Babcock, widely thought to be Edmonton’s first choice.
Babcock, 52, is widely perceived as one of the best coaches in hockey, who won a Stanley Cup ring with Detroit in 2008 and two Olympic gold medals with Team Canada in 2010 and 2014.
But not everyone is drinking that Kool-Aid. Rumors persistently linked Babcock to Pittsburgh, despite a 43-27-12 season under first-year coach Mike Johnston. GM Jim Rutherford said over the weekend that he remains committed to Johnston and his coaching staff. The reasoning? The Penguins see Babcock as a coach who’s just 3-6 in playoff series since winning the Cup in 2008.
And as much as Babcock laments the aging of his three stars, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, Penguins watchers point out that in 2005, when Datsyuk was 27 and Zetterberg was 24, the Wings finished with a whopping 124 points, only to fall in the first round to the Edmonton Oilers.
Here’s a list of teams with coaching vacancies and what we think are reasonable odds for them to win the Babcock sweepstakes:
Edmonton: 3-2 — Having an opportunity to coach a premier prospect like Connor McDavid would be reason enough, but Babcock’s preference for the Oilers could go far beyond that. He has close ties to Bob Nicholson the former president and CEO of Hockey Canada who hired Babcock to win those two Olympic gold medals. Babcock is sure the Oilers are in good hands. Moreover, owner Daryl Katz has the checkbook to match any offer from the big market clubs competing for Babcock’s services. Finally, Babcock grew up in Western Canada, began his coaching career there and has roots, including a summer home, in neighboring Saskatchewan.
Buffalo: 6-1 — Buffalo, too, is likely to draft a generational player in Jack Eichel with the second overall pick, and owners Terry and Kim Pegula — who also own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills — don’t mind making a splash, like they did when they hired Rex Ryan to coach their football team. The club said in a news release on Friday that it would have no comment on its search until a new coach is hired. True to that word, when an AP reporter caught up with Babcock at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport on Sunday, the coach deferred questions to Terry Pegula, who said "hello," commented on the weather and walked away to board a private jet.
Philadelphia: 7-1 — Flyers owner Ed Snider is more than impatient for a Stanley Cup title on his watch. He has deep pockets and usually gets what he wants — if he can buy it. But the Flyers aren’t nearly as close to winning as they think they are, and Babcock knows it.
Toronto: 9-1 — Money aside — and the Leafs are among the "stupid rich" in hockey — the only way Babcock takes this job is if he lets his ego win out over his brain. And that will be some wrestling match. The Leafs, even by President Brendan Shanahan’s most optimistic prognosis, are years away from being a serious Cup contender, and Babcock really likes winning. Isn’t that what he’s always saying?
New Jersey: 25-1 — The front office is in good hands, with newly installed GM Ray Shero replacing Lou Lamoriello, who kicked himself upstairs. But like Philadelphia and Toronto, the Devils need more on the ice to make a run at the Cup.
San Jose: 50-1 — This is where Babcock should go coach if he’s serious about working with a team ready to contend, says Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry. But Babcock knows better. He and McLellan, who walked away from that mess, remain close, and surely McLellan has given Babcock an earful about how the Sharks are, to put it politely, unstable in the front office of GM Doug Wilson.
Detroit: 20-1 — Until recently, the Wings’ front office figured it was about 80-20 that Babcock would stay. They also know that once anyone — player, coach or GM — hits the free-agent market, he’s more than likely to go. So these odds are probably optimistic.