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 isn’t feeling complacent. That’s not a word, as he likes to say, that’s even in his vocabulary.

But less than 72 hours after the Red Wings season ended with another first-round playoff exit, Babcock insisted he’s 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 he’ll be entering the final year of his deal this fall, though he doesn’t seem at all worried about it.

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

“One thing, when you’re at the stage I am, I’m real comfortable with whatever they want. I want them to be happy. And if they’re not happy, then I’m not happy.”

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

But beyond that?

“I haven’t thought about going anywhere else,” Babcock said. “I like it here. The owner’s great to me — actually, the owner’s better than great to me here — and they do things right, they treat people right. And the GM is a driven guy who can’t 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 team’s performance next season.

Free agency beckons

Yet, while Holland says he’s “assuming” he’ll 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 won’t, 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 Babcock’s three children, daughter Taylor, will graduate from high school next spring, so the family ties won’t be the same bind they’ve been. And there’s little doubt Babcock would be a hot commodity on the open market, if it ever came to that.

“If this was my first gig, I’d want an extension,” he said. “It’s not. I’m good.”

He’s better than good.

He’s 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 league’s 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 hasn’t 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 didn’t mince words when analyzing the team’s string of early playoff exits since 2009 — “That’s 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, he’s on a short list. He’s on that list. I think many people would have him on that list.”

Babcock’s undoubtedly aware of that, just as he’s 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 wouldn’t 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 — Toronto’s Randy Carlyle and Vancouver’s John Tortorella — remain in limbo after disappointing seasons sparked front-office changes.

San Jose’s Todd McLellan and Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma are no locks to stay put if the playoffs end poorly for either team.

But that’s true every offseason in the NHL.

And with Babcock’s future in Detroit uncertain beyond next season — “I gotta talk to Mike, but I do want him back,” Holland reiterated — it’s one more reason they’ll hang on to a possible in-house successor.

Jeff Blashill, hired from Western Michigan to be Babcock’s assistant in 2011, led the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins to a Calder Cup title last spring and has them rolling again in this year’s playoffs.

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

“I don’t really want to be a development team for other people, really,” Holland said. “I’ve 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.


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