By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 24) — For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Mike Babcock will not return next season as coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
This has been pure speculation since October, when Babcock’s self–imposed deadline for a contract extension with the Red Wings came and went. He said he would not negotiate during the regular season, nor has he agreed to guide Detroit beyond the 2015 Stanley Cup tournament. The Wings endured a gut–wrenching defeat on home ice Thursday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals — coughing up a 2–0 lead to Tampa Bay in the last 5½ minutes of regulation before losing early in overtime. Instead of a commanding 3–1 series lead, Detroit now faces a best–of–three showdown with the Lightning, beginning Saturday in Tampa. The Game 4 meltdown will be difficult to shake. Babcock’s time in Detroit could end as soon as Monday night.
Even if the Red Wings advance beyond the opening round, there is no indication that Babcock will stay put. Opportunity abounds for the future Hall–of–Fame coach — three appearances in the Stanley Cup final (one with Anaheim); the 2008 National Hockey League championship (in Detroit) and a pair of Winter Olympic gold medals behind Team Canada’s bench (2010 / 2014) cementing his legacy. With Thursday night’s galling defeat as a potential tipping point, Babcock could well be eyeing a fresh challenge and an unprecedented salary to continue coaching in the NHL.
MIKE BABCOCK: HIS FINAL DAYS AS COACH IN DETROIT?
At the moment, there are four vacancies (Toronto, Buffalo, Philadelphia and San Jose) with a fifth — in Edmonton — a virtual certainty now that Peter Chiarelli has become the Oilers’ president and director of hockey operations. Boston will hire a general manager to replace Chiarelli, which jeopardizes Claude Julien’s position as coach of the Bruins. New Jersey could be in the market after GM Lou Lamoriello fired Peter deBoer (Dec. 26) and took to the bench alongside Adam Oates and Scott Stevens. Who knows how an early playoff departure by the St. Louis Blues could impact Ken Hitchcock? Same with Mike Yeo in Minnesota.
A source Friday night claimed, via email, that Babcock is “most interested” in working for Pittsburgh or Chicago — teams that aren’t at the forefront of speculation. So, should he depart company with the Red Wings, he’ll be able to write his own ticket with any of half–a–dozen big league rivals. It has been broadly speculated that Babcock desires to create a new payroll standard for NHL coaches; he’ll become the most generously compensated of his ilk wherever he lands this summer.
In that regard, Toronto — if interested — looms as a possibility.
It is difficult to envision Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment being out–bid in a financial skirmish for the native of Manitouwadge, Ont. Beyond money, however, Toronto has to rate beneath Edmonton (and Buffalo) as a potential Babcock employer. Since winning the Connor McDavid draft lottery last weekend, the Oilers have re–structured their organization — elevating former Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson to Chief Executive Officer and installing Chiarelli as president. With McDavid about to join an enviable cast of forwards (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent–Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle, Kelowna junior Leon Draisaitl) and with the city of Edmonton building its new downtown arena (Rogers Place is slated to open in October 2016), the lure of the Oilers is rather Gretzky–like. Add to that Nicholson’s loyalty toward ex–Hockey Canada personnel (Chiarelli was part of the Sochi management team) and a laser–beam points directly at Babcock, should he become available (interesting that Chiarelli and Brian Burke — GM’s in the Boston–to–Toronto trade of Phil Kessel — are now rival hockey presidents in the Battle of Alberta).
EDMONTON OILERS CEO BOB NICHOLSON (LEFT) WELCOMES PETER CHIARELLI AS THE CLUB’S NEW PRESIDENT AND DIRECTOR OF HOCKEY OPERATIONS ON FRIDAY.
Buffalo is also hugely enticing. Barring the unforeseen, the Sabres will draft Jack Eichel second to McDavid in June and build their program around the Boston University star. If its players develop as expected, Buffalo will soon have remarkable talent and depth at center–ice with Eichel, Sam Reinhart (drafted second overall last year), Evander Kane (acquired from Winnipeg) and holdovers Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons. Add a legitimate No. 1 goalie to the mix (as must Edmonton), and the Sabres could rocket upward in the next few years.
By comparison, the Maple Leafs are an empty cupboard. Right now. Brendan Shanahan promises to build the hockey club conventionally and I wouldn’t bet against him. For Babcock, however, Edmonton and Buffalo present more immediate opportunity. Both cities get a bad rap, primarily because of abominable winter conditions. Yet, each is blessed with unwavering fan support and community temperament. A winning hockey team, as before, would “own” northern Alberta and western New York.
At the moment, the Leafs would appear to be no better than a third choice for Babcock. Expectation, therefore, should be tempered.
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