Detroit — Mike Babcock saw this coming, and so did the Red Wings. So if the conclusion seemed crazy, it also was logical.
The Wings' longtime coach is gone, headed to Toronto to accept a historic $50 million, eight-year deal. He's leaving a franchise that has 24 consecutive playoff appearances for one that's missed the postseason nine of the past 10 years.
Beyond the dollars, it actually makes sense. The Wings lost one of the top coaches in hockey Wednesday and the Maple Leafs paid dearly — and daringly — for him. But at the end of a whirlwind few weeks, there was no discord, only an amicable parting that was trending that way.
A direction shift is unavoidable sometimes, and not just because the Wings lost in the first round of the playoffs three of the past four years. There's youth on the roster and more youth coming. GM Ken Holland has been preparing for this as long as Babcock has been preparing for it, more than a year. The successor is expected to be Jeff Blashill, 41, who was retained and groomed in Grand Rapids for precisely this reason.
"Sometimes change is good, and if I can make the right decision, I believe we're going to have a very good head coach," Holland said. "We're not going to fold the franchise. We're going to go to work, and we're going to try to beat Mike."
When a significant asset leaves for little in return — a third-round pick — it's usually troublesome. And we'll see if Blashill fulfills his lofty billing as a guy who brings a lot of Babcock's best traits — success, passion, player development and accountability.
Awaiting AHL outcome
But Holland and the Wings don't seem concerned, primarily because they've been ready for it. Holland said Blashill is the first candidate on his list, and I'd suggest it's a list no longer than one or two. The Grand Rapids Griffins are about to open the AHL's Western Conference finals, so Holland will wait before making anything official. A year ago, the Wings doubled Blashill's salary to keep other NHL teams from approaching him, further evidence this outcome surprised nobody.
There's no blame to level, no teeth to gnash, and when Holland talked about Babcock's 10-year tenure, he must have used the word "fabulous" a half-dozen times. When Babcock is introduced in Toronto this morning, there will be similar bouquets of admiration. You can't fault him for accepting the richest coaching contract in NHL history, and you can't blame the Wings for letting him go. There's not much they could reasonably do anyhow, although Holland reportedly offered $20 million over five years.
Both sides claimed it was never all about the money, which may have been accurate right up until the Maple Leafs made it about the money. That made it easier for Holland to accept, and surely made it easier for Babcock to take on a gigantic rebuilding job with a rotten roster.
The size of the Maple Leafs' gambit was the only real surprise. Toronto apparently outbid Buffalo in the past two days, and after Holland made his final pitch Wednesday morning at 8, Babcock called back with his answer at 11:15. Holland then told Mike Ilitch the news.
"His reaction was the same as mine — let's go find the next head coach," Holland said. "I've been in this sport a long time, and anytime you're an unrestricted free agent in the prime of your career, there's probably going to be opportunities that stagger you. I'm happy for Mike. He gave our fans and organization 10 fabulous years, and I believe it was a difficult decision for him."
I'm guessing it got a lot easier when the desperate Maple Leafs, led by former Wing Brendan Shanahan, cranked the offer. Toronto is North America's hockey mecca but hasn't won the Stanley Cup since 1967. If Babcock thought he became a legend by winning one Cup and two gold medals, he'll be a Canadian deity if he can fix the mess in Toronto.
That had to play on Babcock's ego, but ego is part of what makes him a great coach. It's the reason he was willing to finish out his contract, betting on his own ability. He repeatedly said his decision would be driven by family and the chance to win, so either his family loves Toronto as much as it loves Detroit, or he's confident he can join forces with Shanahan and halt a half-century of misery. Good luck with that.
Time for a fresh voice?
But remember, the standards are different there. If Babcock gets the Maple Leafs into the playoffs and they lose in the first round, it's a huge step. If that happens in Detroit, it's a huge stumble.
That standard isn't going to change here, not as long as Ilitch and Holland are in charge. The Wings have weathered many star departures, from Steve Yzerman to Scotty Bowman to Nicklas Lidstrom. And they'll have a bunch of motivated veteran players, such as Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall.
After the Wings were eliminated in Game 7 by the Lightning, Babcock perhaps foreshadowed his intentions when he said the top players were getting older, and he didn't know if the younger players were good enough. It was an indelicate assessment after a tough loss, but it was truly Babcockian: raw, honest and ruffling.
It also showed it might be time for a fresh voice. The Wings aren't necessarily rebuilding, because that simply isn't allowed with the playoff streak. But they are retrenching, and it could take more patience than Babcock was willing to give.
This upheaval can be viewed the skeptical way, that the Wings former stars came back to haunt them. Yzerman's team knocked them out of the playoffs with a young coach in Jon Cooper, and then Shanahan came along and swiped Babcock.
It also can be viewed the logical way, that Babcock saw a wide-open door and the chance for a lucrative exit, a chance to reinvigorate himself. With their own promising young coach, it's a chance for the Wings to do the same.
"We have lots of positives," Holland said. "We've got youth on our team, a brand new building coming (in 2017). We've got important building blocks."
Babcock did what he hinted he'd do, and no one should be surprised. Now the Wings must do what they've long done, and again prove one big-name loss doesn't deter them.