Krupa: Babcock sees better chance to win Cup elsewhere

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mike Babcock suggested we not read much into what we hear about his status as coach of the Red Wings.

But what seems unmistakably clear is he has considered the opportunity here, and decided his next Stanley Cup is more likely obtainable elsewhere.

And that is a harsh judgment on the state of the Red Wings.

Winning is not the only thing for the most accomplished coach, and almost certainly the best, in the NHL. But it is the ultimate concern, especially when the other considerations are eliminated by the process.

General manager Ken Holland says Babcock is the coach the Wings want, and the checkbook co-signed by Mike and Marian Ilitch, and increasingly their son Chris, is open.

So, money is not much of a consideration.

Babcock says repeatedly he likes the people with whom he works, Holland included, and has enormous respect for the ownership.

So, the state of the essential relationships is not much of a consideration.

And as for family, Babcock joked that when he first started talking to Maureen Babcock about it, things got a little pitched. Regardless, deciphering the extent to which Mrs. Babcock and the family is a consideration puts us squarely into the area in which Babcock advised against venturing.

But after the money and collegiality are eliminated as issues, and the family has its say, Babcock's decision is based entirely on the state of the team.

With the news that Babcock is free, for a time this month, to talk to other teams likely means he perceives better opportunity elsewhere.

'Where's our team going?'

Beginning a year ago when they cleaned out the dressing room after elimination by the Bruins in five games, I thought I saw a coach for whom the possibility of imminent departure was part of the plan. I thought, like Scotty Bowman, Babcock would go from year-to-year with one-year deals, just in case he spied a better opportunity and to help keep management, scouts and players under his sway.

When the Red Wings shocked everyone this season with their improved performance and surprised even Babcock by playing at the top of the standings, it seemed the year-to-year concept was, in fact, the program.

But when the team sputtered and then hit a rut at the beginning of March, from which it rarely emerged, the limits of the roster and the merging talent pool were exposed again.

Free agents have not come.

Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall are ever closer to the end of their careers.

Bowman had another plan for when those concerns arose in Montreal. He looked for other opportunities to win the Stanley Cup.

He miscalculated after his glory years in Montreal by signing with an aging Buffalo team. He did better with them than most, of course. But he could not deliver a Cup before the roster faded.

Babcock intends to avoid a similar miscalculation.

"People were speculating because Mike didn't sign last summer that means he's definitely not going to sign this summer," Holland said a week ago.

"I think part of the reason was this was an important year for him to see where's our team going?

"Where's our team going?" Holland repeated for emphasis.

"We're trying to transition on the fly. We're trying to go from older to younger"

Bowman opted for the Penguins in 1990, and they won two Cups, one with him directing personnel and the other with him replacing the late Bob Johnson behind the bench.

A shrewd move.

The next season, Bowman found another immensely-talented roster struggling to realize that last little something for success in the playoffs, the Red Wings. He stayed for three Stanley Cups.

Another shrewd move.

Babcock intends the same level of discernment as Bowman, a mentor and friend.

Asked a year ago about returning to glory with the Wings, he said, "We're going to have to be better in our lineup to make that happen.

"We think we can be a way better team just because of the growth in our organization."

While the team improved considerably in the first few months of the season, by the end, they clearly were not "a way better team."

Following Bowman

At this juncture of his career, that is likely the most salient fact.

Now, the Red Wings are giving Babcock the official opportunity to shop before they lose exclusive rights to negotiate with him.

They need not do it. But it may be the only chance they have to keep him.

It also helps the Wings get the process out of the way before the draft, and while candidates to replace Babcock are still in place.

Most likely, Babcock has been measuring the other opportunities from behind the bench for the Wings for longer than a season.

Now, he can take some test drives to see how it might feel.

Like Bowman 25 years before him, Babcock can pick and choose.