Niyo: Red Wings let Mike Babcock play the field

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Mike Babcock has 458 wins in Detroit, a franchise record.

Breaking up is hard to do. But the Red Wings and their coach, Mike Babcock, have already had the "It's not you, it's me" talk.

And now they've agreed to start seeing other people.

So it shouldn't be long now. Either a permanent split is coming — general manager Ken Holland has given Babcock a soft deadline of May 25 to decide his future — or it'll be one awkward, unexpected reconciliation.

Because with Babcock hitting the open market, something he seemed destined to do after twice rebuffing contract extensions from the Red Wings in the last 12 months, he'll almost assuredly find an offer he can't refuse, or one the Wings won't match.

Neither party is ready to say so publicly, of course. No sense slamming the door on a relationship that has produced so many good memories over the last decade, including a Stanley Cup championship, five division titles and a playoff berth every year.

But don't expect much in the way of bargaining, either. At this point, neither side is in denial about any of this.

"If Mike finds a better situation out there, I'm gonna shake his hand and thank him for 10 fabulous years," Holland said on a conference call Friday before heading to the Czech Republic to scout the world championships. "I'm hoping that Mike comes to the conclusion that we are the best fit for him.

"But certainly given his status in the industry — and given a lot of other things — is there the potential that he'd choose to go elsewhere? Absolutely. Anytime you get to talk to some other teams there's the potential that he makes a decision to go elsewhere. And if that's the case, we'll take it from there."

Phone's been ringing

From here, though, it's Babcock's call. And undoubtedly there will be plenty of calls.

As soon as the Red Wings season ended last week with the Game 7 playoff loss to the Lightning — Detroit's third first-round exit the last four years — Holland said his phone was ringing with teams wanting to speak with Babcock.

Philadelphia, Toronto, Buffalo, San Jose and New Jersey all have coaching vacancies. Edmonton, which just hit the draft lottery and will add phenom Connor McDavid with the No. 1 overall pick in June, has an interim coach, but is expected to make a pitch.

Mike Babcock

Other teams with coaches — Boston, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, or even Anaheim, still alive in the playoffs — also could jump into the fray.

Holland said he put at least two teams on hold last week until he could have another long talk with his coach, which he finally did Sunday, carpooling to and from Grand Rapids for an AHL playoff game with Babcock.

The two men have known each other for nearly 25 years, and there's a mutual respect there. But there's also a mutual desire to avoid a messy breakup, it seems.

So after Babcock, whose contract is set to expire June 30, reaffirmed his desire to test the market, Holland — after discussing it with owners Mike and Marian Ilitch — granted him permission. And in doing so, the Red Wings have all but waved goodbye, sacrificing their last bit of leverage for the sake of expediency, and a small fee.

Last summer, the league brought back a rule that grants draft-pick compensation to teams losing front-office decision-makers or head coaches under contract. If it happens during the season, a team receives a second-round pick. If it's after the season — as it would be in this case with Babcock — it's a third-round pick.

Holland said the Red Wings drew up a compensation letter for teams seeking permission to interview Babcock — the NHL's longest-tenured head coach — and put a May 25 deadline on it. The GM said Friday there's some wiggle room there, if necessary.

"But I told Mike that I'd like to know in the next 2-3 weeks what his decision is," Holland said. "Certainly by the end of May, at the very latest, I'm hoping to have a decision."

He likely won't have to wait that long. There's a reason there's been little, if any, activity in the coaching market to date, nearly a month after the end of the regular season. Everyone's waiting on Babcock, the 52-year-old who owns the franchise record for wins (458), as well as a pair of Olympic gold medals among four international titles.

And while everyone around the league seems to have an opinion on where he'll land — there are strong ties to management in Edmonton and Buffalo, among others, but keep an eye on Philadelphia, where Comcast chairman Ed Snider could break the bank, too — Babcock insists he doesn't.

"Nobody does, until you get that phone call," said Babcock, whose youngest child is graduating from high school this spring. "People think they know what's going to happen, but they don't. Nobody knows."

$4 million contract ahead

But for months the Red Wings have known where this was likely headed. The team's last contract offer in January was for four years and nearly $13 million, but Babcock, clearly disappointed by some of the team's free-agent misses and personnel decisions in recent years, said he'd prefer to wait until after the season.

And as Holland acknowledged Friday, "There's no use me just using this exclusive window till the end of June to kind of box him out so he can't go anywhere."

Instead, the team simply pressed the fast-forward button, giving Babcock the chance to do what he wanted all along.

"You owe it to yourself to see what's out there," said Babcock, well aware that with a few deep-pocketed owners in the mix, he could set a new standard — $4 million annually, and maybe much more than that — for his profession.

Likewise, the Red Wings owe it to themselves, and to Babcock's likely successor, Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill, to settle this.

"And that's only going to happen if we give (Babcock) the green light or permission to talk to some other teams," said Holland, who won't allow Blashill the same opportunity yet, though he's busy coaching at the moment, anyway. "There's other teams out there looking for coaches, and there's other candidates out there."

Other fish in the sea, as they say.