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Wojo: Babcock could be the first Red Wing to leave

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — There's nothing mysterious or sinister about it, despite the tight-lipped responses. Mike Babcock simply might be ready for a new challenge, something the Red Wings can't offer.

There's a reason Babcock is set to hit free agency — he wanted to see what was there, and the Red Wings didn't stop him. Both sides let it play out, and now that it has, with the Red Wings eliminated in the first round for the third time in four years, the next step is logical.

I suspect it'll be a mutually agreeable parting, and Babcock will leave after 10 years in Detroit. It's not over for sure, and Babcock and Red Wings GM Ken Holland will talk more, probably today when the players clean out their lockers. Neither side will reach the conclusion easily, and how could they?

Babcock is an elite coach, the best in hockey, and the Red Wings would gladly keep him if they could justify the escalating price, coupled with recent playoff stagnancy. Babcock enjoys living here, is tight with Holland and has a decent roster of young talent. I think he'd gladly stay if he could justify another long-term commitment for less than market value, with a team aging at the top.

This will come down to options, and Babcock should have lucrative ones, from Philadelphia to Edmonton to Buffalo to Toronto to teams that might even create a vacancy for him. Detroit will have options too, from its touted young coach in Grand Rapids, Jeff Blashill, to former assistant Todd McLellan, who parted ways with San Jose.

The Red Wings can't find a better coach than Babcock. But they also know they can't provide him a roster flush with fresh stars, something the Penguins could do, or even Edmonton could do now that it'll land phenom Connor McDavid with the No. 1 pick.

Dropping hints

It's never good to lose a top-notch coach, and also never good for a coach to stay too long. Scotty Bowman left after nine years and deftly avoided a rebuild. The Red Wings have a storied history, great ownership, smart, stable management and a new arena coming, but their star power — Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall — is in its mid-30s. There are promising young players and more dynamic prospects in the farm system, but you can't say Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan are certain to be the next generation of stars.

And you can't say the Red Wings are closer to winning a Cup now than they were five years ago, something Babcock acknowledges in not-so-subtle ways.

"I would tell you this, our team is not as good as it was," Babcock said after the Wings were eliminated in Tampa on Wednesday night. "It's very evident. (Tampa Bay) has a young team that was bad for a long time, and they were able to rebuild it. Our best players are 34, 35, 37, so any way you look at it, we're a team that has changed a ton of players, but on the outside, they don't pick us as Stanley Cup contenders."

That's truthful bluntness, and a clue to Babcock's thinking. He's 52 and in his prime, and scrapping to barely make the playoffs was fun once, maybe twice. This is three times in a row. He's not blameless for the struggles, but he showed he could adjust to a younger roster. I bet he just doesn't want to adjust for another three or four years.

Babcock also wants to push the salary ceiling for coaches, and the Wings are willing to make him the highest-paid at $3.2 million or more. But they won't shatter their pay structure or plead with him to stay, and another franchise probably will pay closer to $5 million.

Bowman was masterful at finding a team ready to win. It wouldn't be a surprise if Babcock had a similar notion.

"We got lots of good young players, no question about it," Babcock said. "But who's gonna replace Pav? I don't think Pav's going anywhere right away, but you gotta have big-time players up the middle and on the back. We've been drafting good and developing good, but we've been winning too much."

Many moves ahead

A general manager wants to win for a long time, which explains Holland's reluctance to surrender prime prospects in blockbuster trades, a philosophy that needs rethinking this offseason. A coach wants to win big now, because he's judged on short-term results.

The Red Wings aren't allowed to rebuild, not in the traditional sense of missing the playoffs, collecting high picks and restocking with prime talent. They set their own standard with their incredible 24-year playoff streak, and maintaining it has become a mandate. They rebuild on the fly, plug in veterans and mine the draft for gems.

Why do it this way? Well, there's not much evidence the traditional way works, based on the longstanding woes of Edmonton, Toronto, Buffalo and others. And in today's parity, just getting into the playoffs opens all sorts of possibilities.

It's the Wings Way, and it was easier to sustain when they had a superstar in Nicklas Lidstrom manning the blue line. Now they face numerous tough decisions, including at goaltender, where Petr Mrazek proved he's ready but Jimmy Howard has a long-term contract and a $5.3-million salary.

Howard will get a chance to win his job back, and he's probably one of several players who would welcome a fresh start. Babcock's relentless style can grate, but if you go deep into the playoffs, nobody cares. Zetterberg and other players don't say much about the situation, but they know changes are ahead.

"The rebuilding that everyone talks about that all teams go through, we're doing it," Zetterberg said. "We see guys come in — Sheahan, Nyquist, Tatar — that took big steps. They're not just young players anymore that show up once in a while.

" I think the core is good. We have some good things that we can build around."

Whether it's building or rebuilding, it's a difficult task. Would it be more difficult without Babcock? A question that just might get answered.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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