April 30, 2014 at 10:53 am

John Niyo

Red Wings coach Babcock hesitant to commit to contract extension

Red Wings players clean out lockers
Red Wings players clean out lockers: Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard and Henrik Zetterberg reflect on the end of the season

Detroit Mike Babcock isnt feeling complacent. Thats not a word, as he likes to say, thats even in his vocabulary.

But less than 72 hours after the Red Wings season ended with another first-round playoff exit, Babcock insisted hes comfortable with his contractual situation.

And if that makes his bosses uncomfortable, well, they certainly know where to find him.

Babcock, who turned 51 on Tuesday, signed a four-year extension in October 2010 that made him the highest-paid coach in the NHL. That means hell be entering the final year of his deal this fall, though he doesnt seem at all worried about it.

No priority, whatsoever, Babcock said when asked about the possibility of signing an extension this summer. Im real comfortable with the owner (Mike Ilitch), with the manager (Ken Holland), and thats not a concern for me one bit.

One thing, when youre at the stage I am, Im real comfortable with whatever they want. I want them to be happy. And if theyre not happy, then Im not happy.

He went on to joke hell either be coaching the Red Wings this fall or serving as an assistant at Michigan under Red Berenson, with whom hes developed a close bond since coming to Detroit in 2005.

But beyond that?

I havent thought about going anywhere else, Babcock said. I like it here. The owners great to me actually, the owners better than great to me here and they do things right, they treat people right. And the GM is a driven guy who cant stand losing. And I like to be around ultracompetitive people.

In 2010, that general manager also signed an extension that runs through the 2014-15 season, though Holland confirmed Tuesday his contract carries a team option for 2015-16, with incentive clauses that could trigger it based on the teams performance next season.

Free agency beckons

Yet, while Holland says hes assuming hell have talks with ownership about signing an extension this offseason, Babcock suggested he might not. In fact, when asked directly about that possibility Tuesday, he replied, I doubt it.

I doubt they wont, frankly. Holland said he expects to sit down with Babcock to talk about it relatively soon.

But all of this only fuels speculation the Red Wings coach might prefer to hit free agency a year from now. The youngest of Babcocks three children, daughter Taylor, will graduate from high school next spring, so the family ties wont be the same bind theyve been. And theres little doubt Babcock would be a hot commodity on the open market, if it ever came to that.

If this was my first gig, Id want an extension, he said. Its not. Im good.

Hes better than good.

Hes the only coach in history to lead teams to gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships in addition to a Stanley Cup title.

He has been to three Cup Finals as a coach and figures to be a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as the leagues best coach this season.

This month, he passed Adams for No. 1 on the Red Wings career wins list.

His teams have missed the playoffs once in 11 seasons.

Babcock hasnt exactly endeared himself to his players particularly some of the veterans with his abrasive, hard-driving style over the years. But with some prodding from management, he has toned it down the past two seasons. And while Babcock didnt mince words when analyzing the teams string of early playoff exits since 2009 Thats a five-year drought, the way I look at it, he said he got high marks from Holland for his work this season, guiding an inexperienced and injury-riddled lineup back to the postseason again.

I respect the job that he does for us, the work ethic, Holland said. I respect the job that he did this year in putting the young players into the lineup and sticking with them.

I think if you put down a list of the best coaches in the NHL, hes on a short list. Hes on that list. I think many people would have him on that list.

Babcocks undoubtedly aware of that, just as hes aware that a decade at the helm for one team is practically an eternity in this league. And in addition to negotiating leverage, that might be one reason he said Tuesday he wouldnt mind operating on a year-to-year basis in Detroit, much like Scotty Bowman did at the end of his Hall of Fame coaching career.

Successor on hand?

There are a handful of NHL vacancies right now. Washington, Nashville and Florida have fired their coaches, while others Torontos Randy Carlyle and Vancouvers John Tortorella remain in limbo after disappointing seasons sparked front-office changes.

San Joses Todd McLellan and Pittsburghs Dan Bylsma are no locks to stay put if the playoffs end poorly for either team.

But thats true every offseason in the NHL.

And with Babcocks future in Detroit uncertain beyond next season I gotta talk to Mike, but I do want him back, Holland reiterated its one more reason theyll hang on to a possible in-house successor.

Jeff Blashill, hired from Western Michigan to be Babcocks assistant in 2011, led the AHLs Grand Rapids Griffins to a Calder Cup title last spring and has them rolling again in this years playoffs.

He, too, is under contract for one more season, but when I asked Holland if hed allow the 40-year-old Blashill to interview with other NHL teams if they came calling this summer, he said no.

I dont really want to be a development team for other people, really, Holland said. Ive got to get this program going. But I would say to you I believe Blash is an NHL coach-in-the-making.

Is he ready today? Holland continued.

Maybe not, was his implied answer. But like Babcock, Holland will smartly keep his options open.

jniyo@detroitnews.com
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General manager Ken Holland hopes to talk to Red Wings coach Mike Babcock soon about a contract extension. / David Guralnick / Detroit News