Detroit — Mike Babcock's exploratory mission is nearing an end, and indications are, he's torn. While examining reasons to leave the Red Wings, he's also finding reasons to stay.
Babcock has a difficult choice, and when he meets today with general manager Ken Holland, perhaps it becomes clear. The Wings want him back, and I'm guessing they haven't made their final offer yet. All things being equal, Babcock probably would stay. But as we've often seen in unrestricted free agency, all things seldom are equal.
The Wings are selling stability and familiarity. Other teams, such as the Sabres and Maple Leafs, are offering dollars and desperation. This isn't only about money. It's about power and prestige and invigoration. If the desperate Maple Leafs and Sabres are throwing around a lot, Babcock indeed could be gone in the next 48 hours.
Babcock often talks about the grass not necessarily being greener elsewhere, but that was before he got to smell the grass. The Blues and Sharks reportedly are interested too. He said he expects to decide by Wednesday, and at this stage, what can the Wings say that he doesn't already know?
Holland will make one final pitch, and he certainly can point out Babcock has it good here, working with a general manager he likes, working for a deeply committed owner and a storied franchise. It's easy to say the Wings simply should match any offer, but it goes back to the desperation level. What if the Sabres and Maple Leafs are offering a $5-million salary, compared to the last bid of $3.25 million?
Those long-forlorn franchises might feel they have no other option. The Wings believe they have a promising option in Jeff Blashill at Grand Rapids.
If both sides are unsure, what about this: Holland could sign Babcock to a short-term deal, such as two years. That would provide flexibility in case the relationship has been damaged. And Blashill, 41, might be willing to remain patient, following the fabled Wings Way — better to be over-ripe than underprepared.
Gauging his worth
Sometimes you have to explore other places to recognize what you already have. If no team has wowed Babcock with an enticing roster or organizational structure — the Maple Leafs and Sabres are historic disasters — he should stay. He's been careful not to push away from the Wings, and repeatedly says how much his family likes it here.
Babcock became a free agent ostensibly to learn how badly other teams want him, but also to determine how badly the Wings want to keep him. In 10 years in Detroit, he has won one Stanley Cup and two gold medals for Team Canada. No matter the cost — or the three first-round playoff exits in four years — it'd be a major risk to let one of hockey's best coaches walk.
Mike Ilitch doesn't let many top assets walk, if money is the only issue. There's still ample opportunity for both sides to make it work. In an odd joint interview with Holland on TSN Canada a few days ago, Babcock suggested his decision would come earlier than the May 25 soft deadline. He and Holland spent eight hours together Sunday on the flight back from the world championship in the Czech Republic, so I can't imagine there's much more to discuss.
Holland has made two offers, most recently in January, that reportedly would pay Babcock $3.25 million per year, tops in the league. It's not close to Babcock's alleged quest for $4-5 million, but that's a realistic benchmark only if someone offers it.
In the TSN interview with Darren Dreger, Babcock and Holland sat side by side, professing their respect for each other and reaffirming their friendship. It was either a calculated display of public solidarity, or a weird nostalgic farewell. Or maybe just an attempt to figure it out.
"When the year was done, one of the first questions I asked (Holland) was, have I worn out my welcome here?" Babcock said to Dreger. "He's doing what's right for the Detroit Red Wings and I'm gonna do what's right for Mike Babcock. We've been a great fit and this process has been interesting. I tell you, my head's spinning."
Fit must be right
Babcock can be edgy and demanding, not a guaranteed fit everywhere. He said at the start of his free agency the biggest factor would be the chance to win immediately. He said he had no idea what he'd do because he had no idea what opportunities existed, and so far, the process has been as blind as he suggested.
The Penguins didn't change coaches, as some thought they might. The Flyers on Monday hired a college coach, Dave Hakstol of North Dakota. The Oilers reportedly are set to hire Todd McLellan. The Blues technically don't have an opening with Ken Hitchcock there.
Toronto and Buffalo have tons of money but significant rebuilding projects. San Jose, like St. Louis, has a good roster but perhaps not the money to make it worthwhile for Babcock to uproot. Based on all that, Detroit still seems to present the best chance to win.
Two internal issues would require a leap of faith on both sides. First, Babcock has to believe the Wings' core of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datysuk and Niklas Kronwall can be lifted by the array of young (and inconsistent) talent. That requires patience, but the Wings have enough promising prospects, including Michigan's Dylan Larkin, someone should emerge as a star.
And second, Holland has to believe Babcock's grinding message still resonates with the players and hasn't been an impediment to signing free-agents. There's little big-name free-agent movement these days anyhow, and when the Wings open their new arena in 2017, it's even less likely to be an issue.
The Wings have scratched their way to 24 consecutive postseasons, so something is working. They've also gotten knocked out early, and the makeup of the roster is changing. If Babcock decides to leave, you hope it's something he wants to do, not something he believes he has to do.