A 2–0 loss to the Tampa Bay in Game 7 on Wednesday signified more than the end of an NHL season in Detroit.
It may also be the end of an era.
After 10 years as the coach of the Red Wings, Mike Babcock is at a career crossroads. With his current contract expiring he can re-sign for another hitch in Detroit or chart a brand new course with another organization.
Odds are he's looking to move on.
The Wings would love to retain him. And staying put wouldn’t be the worst thing for either party. The money will be there. So will a certain level of comfort that comes from years of working with one of the best organizations in the league.
But comfort might be the last thing that Babcock, who turned 52 on Wednesday, wants at this point in his life.
The window is closing on the Red Wings, who have now lost in the first round in three of the past four seasons. Pavel Datsyuk is 36. Henrik Zetterberg is 34. So is Niklas Kronwall. The kids in line to replace them either aren’t quite as good or are still a ways off from making a real contribution.
Babcock sounded well aware of that reality in the wake of Detroit’s Game 7 loss.
“Our team is not as good as it was,” he told reporters in Tampa. “We battled our butt off just to get in the playoffs … nobody on the outside picked us to be a Stanley Cup contender.”
And that’s the rub. The Wings can offer him plenty of dough, but a chance to compete for the Cup isn’t among the perks. Not any time soon, anyway. And that’s why he’s all but certain to become the most coveted free agent on the market this summer.
There are already five jobs available: Edmonton, Buffalo, Toronto, San Jose, and Philadelphia. Other situations are in flux. St. Louis is expected to cashier Ken Hitchcock after his third consecutive first-round ouster. Boston’s next GM could decide to part ways with Claude Julien in favor of his own man. Mike Johnston’s future is uncertain in Pittsburgh. The Islanders may cut ties with Jack Capuano after a 101 point season just to upgrade to a coach who has a Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals and a .627 points percentage on his résumé.
In other words, there are opportunities, and they’re all waiting on Babcock. No one is going to make a move to fill any of those positions until they know what he’s going to do.
So, where does he wind up? It all comes down to what motivates him.
It certainly won’t be the money. No matter which path he chooses, there’ll be pot o’ gold at the end of it. The consensus is that he can become the NHL’s first $5 million coach with his next deal. He’ll get that, or something close to it, no matter where he goes.
He’ll certainly want a say in player personnel matters, maybe an arrangement similar to what Patrick Roy has in Colorado. Not every GM will want to relinquish any of that power, but a smart one would.
Ultimately though it’ll be about an opportunity to win a championship. What remains to be answered is whether Babcock is looking for a fixer-upper or to get in on the ground floor.
If it’s the latter, it’s hard to imagine a better situation than the Oilers. As far away from contention as Edmonton remains, the chance to nurture a generational talent like Connor McDavid and a promising supporting cast that includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Darnell Nurse would have immense appeal. The same could be said of Buffalo, a situation that would compensate for the lack of a McDavid with Jack Eichel, greater organizational depth and impressive depth down the middle.
Toronto? He doesn’t need the aggravation. Boston and San Jose have the same problem as Detroit—too many key players getting a bit long in the tooth. Philadelphia doesn’t feel like a good cultural fit.
The Isles have made strides under Capuano, but they might need a proven leader in order to take that next step. (Winning a playoff round would be a nice way to start.) And it’s easy to see how they’d appeal to Babcock. Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares and Ryan Strome offer him a dynamite 1-2 punch up front, there’s plenty of high-end skill and truculence on the blueline, and the Isles play a solid possession game.
St. Louis is another fast-track option. Blessed with a skilled, puck-moving defense, an emerging superstar in Vladimir Tarasenko and a young heart-and-soul type in Jaden Schwartz, the Blues have pieces on hand that he'd like to work with. Plus, there’s an established relationship with GM Doug Armstrong based on their time together with Team Canada. They could be the front runner.
Assuming, of course, there will be a race for his services. We’ll find out soon enough.
The numbers game
• The Lightning have not lost consecutive games at home ice since Dec. 6 (Blue Jackets) and 9 (Capitals), and that was the only time it has happened this season. Meanwhile their goalie, Ben Bishop, is now the first to post a shutout in his first Game 7 appearance since Montreal’s Carey Price did it against the Bruins in the first round of the 2008 playoffs.Bishop is also the first to earn his first career postseason shutout in a Game 7 since Ilya Bryzgalov did it with the Ducks against the Flames in the opening round of the 2006 playoffs.
• Of the first round’s 47 games 29 (61.7%) were tied or within one goal entering the final five minutes of regulation, including both Game 7s; 20 (42.6%) saw the winning team come from behind at any point, including five in which it overcame a multi-goal deficit; and 10 (21.3%) went into overtime, including two that needed multiple extra periods.
• Three of the four series the Rangers and Capitals have played since 2009 have gone to a Game 7, including each of the past two. Both were won by New York. In the 2013, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist whitewashed the Caps in Games 6 and 7 as New York came back from a 3-2 series deficit. Only three other netminders in NHL history have posted shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series: Detroit’s Harry Lumley (1950 vs. the Maple Leafs), Edmonton’s Curtis Joseph (1998 vs. the Avalanche) and Detroit’s Dominik Hasek (2002 vs. the Avs).
• Despite battling Stage 4 cancer, Bryan Murray intends to stay on as GM of the Senators next season.
• Lawyers representing the players involved in the concussion lawsuit against the NHL have made an unusual request of the 23 American-based teams.
• Which teams pick when in this summer’s NHL draft? You might want to write this down.