Wojo: Babcock might be on last run with Wings

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock’s contract expires at the end of the season, and he’ll be a free agent.

Detroit — It isn't all about him. It hasn't been and it shouldn't be.

But it's there, simmering just below the surface, the growing sense that Mike Babcock might be coaching his final games with the Red Wings. It's not mere chatter now, it's a real possibility, and perhaps a certainty if the Wings are eliminated from the playoffs early again.

Babcock and Red Wings general manager Ken Holland don't want to talk about it, and haven't all season. The two are tight, and if the Red Wings go on a run starting Thursday night in Tampa, perhaps they reach an agreement. But after 10 years of mutually sustaining the franchise's success, the landscape has shifted, and framework is forming for a respectful parting.

It's strange to suggest a storied team could let such an accomplished coach leave, or that Babcock might want to go. It's too bad if it ends because Babcock has all the traits the Red Wings crave — intelligence, passion, competitiveness, swagger. But indications have been apparent since last summer, when Babcock didn't sign and Holland didn't make many personnel moves, spawning concerns it would be a grind to get into the playoffs.

Both sides wanted to wait and see, especially with the team committed to touted young coach Jeff Blashill in Grand Rapids. The Red Wings have reached the playoffs 24 consecutive years but haven't won the Stanley Cup since 2008. They've lost in the first round two of the past three years. The team has aged and changed on the fly, mixing talented youngsters with stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

It's an unprecedented run, the longest playoff streak in pro sports, and at some point, a reasonable question can be asked: What about more? It's a question Mike Ilitch could pose, as the team breaks ground on a new arena.

It's a question Babcock surely has asked. What about more? More money, more power, more chances to win big? Coaches around the league are watching Babcock closely, knowing he could set a new standard for salaries.

Many suitors

Babcock recognizes that responsibility, and if he hits the market, several teams would happily oblige. The woeful Maple Leafs and Brendan Shanahan supposedly would fork over a $5 million salary. The new Sabres ownership is flush with dough. The win-starved Oilers would welcome a native hero back to Western Canada. Even talented teams such as the Penguins, who barely made the playoffs, or the Bruins, who missed, could make a move.

Babcock is one of the best coaches in hockey, if not the best. Holland has said it himself. Let's be clear on this: I'd give him the largest coaching contract in the NHL, beyond his current $2 million salary, beyond the $3 million reportedly made by Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. And yes, the Wings would do it too. Babcock has said he loves it here and Holland has said he wants to keep him.

But Babcock reached free agency for a reason, and the Wings let him get there for a reason. He wanted to see what else is out there, and the Red Wings wanted to see how he handled the transition to a younger team. Ten years is a long time to control a dressing room, longer than Scotty Bowman lasted. Babcock demands professionalism and doesn't play the warm-and-fuzzy game with players. His message can wear people down, and although he has adjusted, he could be weary delivering it.

This isn't all about money, for either side, although money always matters. Both sides are handling it quietly and respectfully, with nary a hint of disruption. Of course, that was easier to say when the team was rolling. The Red Wings stumbled down the stretch, with their goaltending in disarray. After weeks of hoping Jimmy Howard would seize the job, Babcock finally tabbed youngster Petr Mrazek. Goaltending concerns are a factor in Tampa Bay's status as a heavy favorite.

It's hard to picture the Red Wings, in their current state, rolling through a couple of playoff rounds, and a quick exit could settle the coaching issue decisively. If the possibility of a final run in Detroit is hitting Babcock — or motivating him — he's not letting on.

"We're playing Tampa, that's what I'm dealing with 100 percent," he said Tuesday. "I'm not spending any time thinking about that. Ken and I can work all that stuff out later, I'm not concerned about it one bit. I like winning. Like, I really like winning."

Babcock says that a lot — "I really like winning." Is that a not-so-subtle hint he won't leap for the most money, but for the team with the best chance of winning? Perhaps. And perhaps he still hopes that team will be the Red Wings.

Different for coaches

Toronto, New Jersey and Buffalo have openings, but better teams could create openings. The best option still could be Detroit, although it would take a lot of winning the next few weeks, and a lot more on-ice discipline. That's the surprising part about the recent stagger — the mindless mistakes, turnovers, penalties.

Players say they don't discuss Babcock's status, and no one seems inclined to fire up a "Win One for Babs" cry. No one is making this about him, although a lot is about him.

"Free agency, it's the same thing for him as it is for a player," Zetterberg said. "He's probably thinking about it more than everyone else. Same thing for a player — if you're a free agent, maybe you think more about it yourself. But in this room, our focus is on winning games, and not who's a free agent."

It's been a steely focus around here for a long time, led by one of the best coaches in the business. If this is where it ends for Babcock, it's unfortunate, but at least both sides have prepared for it.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Ups and downs

A look at Mike Babcock-coached Red Wings teams in the postseason:

2005-06: lost to Edmonton, 4-2, first round

2006-07: lost to Anaheim, 4-2, conference finals

2007-08: beat Pittsburgh, 4-2, Stanley Cup Finals

2008-09: lost to Pittsburgh, 4-3, Stanley Cup Finals

2009-10: lost to San Jose, 4-1, second round

2010-11: lost to San Jose, 4-3, second round

2011-12: lost to Nashville, 4-1, first round

2012-13: lost to Chicago, 4-3, second round

2013-14: lost to Boston, 4-1, first round