30 Thoughts: ‘Babwatch’ reaching new heights

Mike Babcock is the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

There were going to be a couple of notes this week about Mike Babcock, and how there is a growing feeling that he will stay in Detroit, spurning the sweet nothings sultry suitors whisper into his ear.

“Babwatch” continues today, despite a report that he was close to an extension with the Red Wings. A report he dismissed as being from a “fantasy world.”

A few different sources expressed surprise before Babcock threw cold water on the story, saying, as far as they knew nothing had changed in the negotiations. Detroit’s still got a long-term deal on the table, worth upwards of $3M per year, which would make him the highest-paid coach in the sport. (Joel Quenneville and Claude Julien are among those who have contracts carrying them into that salary threshold, but not for every season in their deals.)

For all the talk about money and power, recognize that when it comes to work, Babcock cares most about winning. There are a lot of important games to be played, but the Red Wings are comfortably in a playoff position and only Tampa Bay has more regulation/overtime wins (18) than Detroit’s 16.

The organization’s younger players are coming on, with Anthony Mantha and Xavier Ouellet readying to lead another prospect charge. No one was really sure what to expect from Detroit in a time of transition. There are no guarantees, but it looks far from dire.

There are a couple of things to remember here, though. First is that bench bosses across the NHL feel a responsibility to raise the bar. When the coaches’ association was created, one of its biggest goals was to improve things like health benefits, especially for lower-paid assistants. When they got fired, there was risk. A lot of important work is being done in that area.

A rising tide floats all boats and there is no cap on their salaries. Several — Lindy Ruff, John Tortorella and Alain Vigneault among them — jumped into the $2M range last summer. Now others are moving past them. Everyone (including the men standing beside them) reaps the benefits.

Babcock (and his coaching brethren) are very mindful of that.

You also wonder if the coverage of his future makes him think, “Do I need to put up with this on a daily basis?” He is better than anyone at keeping his focus on what really matters, plowing over distractions faster than a Toronto condominium developer over a park bench. But you can tell he can’t stand this.

The one thing I wonder about most is my long-held theory that the closer someone gets to free agency, the harder it is to retain them. Nashville thought it was keeping Ryan Suter. The Toronto Raptors were sure Chris Bosh was staying. It happens in every sport. But, as someone who went through a similar process last year, I have a greater understanding why people want to experience it, to see what’s out there.

There’s no question, though, the winds are blowing differently. Some people who were sure Babcock was leaving before the season aren’t so certain now. But he’s going to keep us guessing. He’s at the top of his profession doing things his way, and that’s not changing.

30 THOUGHTS

1. Over the next few weeks, prospective Las Vegas owner William Foley will meet with the NHL to formulate a ticketing strategy. Recent examples: upon the NHL’s return to Winnipeg, Jets’ prices ranged from $39 to $129 per seat per game. Fans were asked to commit for three to five years. They sold out in less time than in will take you to read this.

When Jim Balsillie tried to “Make it Seven” in Hamilton, he asked $500 per seat in the upper bowl, $1,000 per seat in the lower bowl, and $5,000 per suite. On Day 1 the lower bowl sold out, and the suites were oversold. The upper bowl needed almost two days. Balsillie did not ask for a term commitment.

2. A fairer comparable would be the Las Vegas of the (south) east, Nashville. The city was given a conditional franchise in June 1997 and was told to sell 12,000 season tickets by April 1998. Seat prices started at $15, with the premium ones coming in at $75. Fans were given the option of putting down one-third of the cost (with a payment plan for the rest) or immediately paying in full.

The team only offered full-season packages, although just a one-year term was required. The Predators reached their goal in March. I’ve got no problem with the NHL doing this. What’s better, finding out if the market is soft before or after you award the franchise?

3. Brian Boyle is generally hailed as valedictorian of the Barbara Underhill skating school, but a new contender is emerging: Anaheim’s Matt Beleskey. The 26-year-old scored his 14th goal Wednesday night, tying him with Corey Perry for the team lead. His timing is perfect, as he’s about to be an unrestricted free agent. The Ducks have cap space and are going for it this season, so there is doubt he’ll be available. But if he hits the market there is going to be lots of interest.

4. Unlike Martin Brodeur’s contract with St. Louis, Ilya Bryzgalov’s with Anaheim is all salary with no bonuses.

5. Word last week was a couple of teams who asked Stan Bowman about Jeremy Morin were told he wasn’t available, but Bowman did not comment about it. Therefore, it’s hard to say for sure. GMs will rebuff teams if they don’t want to trade players there or if they feel there is no match.

Chicago will need low-salaried offensive talents next season when the Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews extensions kick in, so others understand why Bowman would be reluctant. But, there is also a possibility Morin is being passed in the organization by Mark McNeill and Teuvo Teravainen.

6. I don’t know what to make of the Andrew Barroway/Phoenix situation. The one thing I do believe is that the NHL thought it wouldn’t have another ownership issue there so quickly, and they aren’t thrilled by this development.

7. The hardest thing for the Coyotes is it sounds like they would really like to make an offer to Antoine Vermette. Before the season, GM Don Maloney said he wanted to do it and was prepared to negotiate after the puck dropped - something he generally frowns upon. He wouldn’t talk numbers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the first digit was a six. Since Vermette will be 33 in July, the tougher conversation would probably be term. Regardless, Maloney can’t do anything amidst all this uncertainty.

8. A few notes about Ottawa’s coaching change. First, Bryan Murray did not offer the job to Luke Richardson before hiring Dave Cameron. “I found out after it happened,” Richardson said Monday. “A friend said to me, ‘Hey, did you hear about Ottawa?’”

He did say that the two men do speak periodically about Richardson’s future, including an extended conversation last summer where Murray asked specific questions about his AHL coach’s long-term goals.

9. “I do want to coach in the NHL someday, but my headspace is good where I am right now,” Richardson said. “I still have a lot to learn here.”

His daughter, Morgan, has one more year of school not far from Binghamton, and that will be a major factor in any decision. He will sit down with his family after the season to see how everyone feels, but in talking to him you certainly get the sense that waiting another season for his chance won’t be a problem.

10. Murray took heat for his rationale in making the change, but I do believe that he fought pretty hard for MacLean behind the scenes. Last April 4, after the Senators blew a 4-0 lead to Montreal by giving up seven goals in a row, I got a call saying, “This is it, a change is coming.” But, of course, it didn’t. MacLean and Jason Spezza waged a season-long struggle in 2013-14, and Murray hoped the trade and a pre-season meeting with the team’s leadership group would reset things.

11. It’s not important for coaches and players to like each other. But, it is important they pull in the same direction and understand where each other is coming from. At his post-firing briefing MacLean said last weekend’s comment about being scared to death of who he was going to put on the ice against Pittsburgh was a joke that was badly misinterpreted.

The fact he thought that way, while the organization and players felt opposite, shows how “off” the relationship became.

12. There are a lot of crazy rumours coming out of this situation. One was the players knew MacLean was out before the 4-3 win over Vancouver on Sunday. I pursued it, but there’s a strong denial from the Senators camp.

13. During the 2007 Stanley Cup Final I had a chance to chat with Cameron, who spent that season as coach of the AHL Senators. He was thrilled for the organization, but had a very frustrating year with a team that finished 25 games under .500.

“My hardest year in coaching,” he said then. Eugene Melnyk liked him and hired him to coach the OHL’s Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors the following season. There was always a sense Melnyk wanted Cameron to get this chance.

14. It’s no coincidence that news of Ottawa’s interest in a downtown arena broke as Mayor Jim Watson swore in a new council and finalized who sits on what committees. Melnyk, who saved the Senators from bankruptcy, was disappointed by two previous dealings with the city. The second, a lost casino opportunity, was particularly annoying because he felt a proposal he’d spent years putting together was wasted when the process changed late in the game.

When the Foreign Affairs Minister, who oversees the commission handling this, told The Ottawa Citizen “I’ve travelled quite a bit and I’ve never seen a major sports arena in the middle of nowhere,” you’ve got to feel decently about your chances. With Edmonton’s new arena already under construction it means the Senators are about to be the only team in Canada not located in their city’s downtown. You could watch The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II driving to a game from east of the city.

15. Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli and assistant GM Don Sweeney were on a lengthy power-forward viewing tour. (If he could skate, the Bruins might have pursued the Lakers’ Carlos Boozer.) Chiarelli did not want to discuss it, but word last weekend was the Bruins were not close on anything. With that being said, there was a feeling at the Board of Governors meeting that things have intensified on Sabres forward Chris Stewart.

Right now Boston and Buffalo are like two high schoolers at the prom deciding whether or not to dance. Eventually, you’ve got to make your move, or go on to the next victim.

16. When Bob Nicholson cancelled his appearance at Hockey Canada’s 100th anniversary last week it was taken as a sign that his influence in the Oilers’ organization is growing. He was part of the “forensic audit,” as the team’s brain trust assessed its disappointing performance. The unanswered question is: what will be Nicholson’s role when the dust settles? We might not learn until the spring.

17. With Edmonton’s reported interest in Artem Anisimov, the Oilers did shoot much higher. They asked about Ryan Johansen, and from what I understand, were prepared to make a legit offer. My guess: if the Blue Jackets showed interest, Edmonton might have tried to get both centres. I don’t think it got very far, though. According to one GM, “everyone” has inquired about Johansen since his contract dispute with Columbus. “We’re being told he is not available.”

18. Carolina is three games into a lengthy stretch that sees them play 15 straight against Eastern Conference opponents. It wouldn’t surprise me if this stretch determines Ron Francis’ roster decisions.

19. Kyle Okposo on the change in the Islanders’ mentality: “We’ve gone from hoping to win to expecting to win. And, not just that, but expecting to put teams on their heels right away.”

20. The Canucks were steaming when Anders Lee eventually got a hearing for elbowing Carl Gunnarsson, but Stephane Robidas didn’t for his shot to Shawn Matthias. The biggest complaint (and the Blues had it too) was that if a player is responsible for accidents with his stick, shouldn’t he also be responsible for accidents with his body parts? I’ve asked about this before, and the response is usually something along the lines of, “Then teams will complain there are too many suspensions.”

21. Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins said he learned a lot about Bo Horvat in Vancouver’s 5-1 loss to Los Angeles on Nov. 8. With a game the next night in Anaheim, Desjardins decided to use Horvat a little more against the likes of Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter.

Talking to Horvat about it last weekend you could see how much he loved the opportunity. During a TV timeout he stood near Mike Richards and decided to tell the Kings’ centre that he was Horvat’s favourite player growing up. Did Richards come back with something like, “Geez, I’m getting old?” “No,” Horvat laughed. “I actually asked him if he kept in touch with a junior teammate who is from my hometown. Then I told him he was my favourite player. He was great about it.”

22. You wonder if a coach changes over the years, especially from juniors to the AHL to the NHL. But Derek Dorsett says Desjardins is still the same guy who coached him from 2004-07 in Medicine Hat.

“Hasn’t changed at all,” Dorsett said.

And that was a compliment. “He still has the same sayings, too,” Dorsett continued. I made an error in writing this down, but one of them is something like, “We’re going to play hard, because playing hard is what we do.”

23. Kevin Bieksa on Alex Edler’s resurgence: “Alex likes to play aggressively. You have to learn not to chase the hit, let it come to you. I have that same problem. He’s learning.”

Desjardins on the Edler/Chris Tanev pairing: “Sometimes you put two guys together in hope of what they can be.” So far, they’re very good. Tanev may never get a ton of points but his coaches and teammates recognize how well he passes out of the zone.

24. Bieksa was asked how good the Canucks are. He responded, “I think we’re still figuring that out.”

That was last week, 36 hours after a 3-0 win in Pittsburgh. His face had a “wow” kind of expression at how well Vancouver played that night. The Canucks followed with one point out of six in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Yes, it was a long road trip, but Bieksa was referring to last season when Vancouver started well but collapsed. The returnees haven’t forgotten.

25. Twitter superstar Eddie Lack changed his routine last summer. He asked his trainer to move in with him for a couple of weeks in Vancouver to co-ordinate his regimen with the Canucks.

How many off-days after the season before he got to work? “About three,” Lack said. “After my hip surgery I constantly felt I was behind (in 2013-14).” Asked if he was worried about that happening again as his workload picks up, Lack replied that it won’t be an issue. “I feel much better this year. Not the same.”

26. Hopeful Nordiques fans weren’t buying that Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Dion was visiting the board of governors meeting solely to talk television. Truth is the NHL does this with its broadcast partners all the time.

Most of them are relaxed presentations — this is what we do, this is our look — although my former employer walked into a hornet’s nest at the 2012 All-Star Game. Dion understands the most important fact if he wants in, there is only one way to do it: the Bettman way.

Quietly.

27. Teams were told that an 88-cent Canadian dollar means a cap in the area of $73 million, but not to expect anything below $71 million. The same people predicting an 81-cent dollar now are the same people predicting a Toronto/Vancouver housing bubble burst for the last five years, so who knows? Expect teams to play conservatively, operating under the assumption the number will be lower while hoping for good news.

28. One potential proposal from the IIHF to the NHL and NHLPA: to move the hockey competition of the 2018 Olympics from Pyeongchang to Seoul. That would mean easier travel and logistics (one less flight). Still unsure how much the Olympic issue has really been discussed, but it shows how much the IIHF and IOC want the NHL.

29. Max Pacioretty on the moment of silence for Jean Beliveau: “It was so quiet. I could hear my own breath.”

30. Intermission interviews outside the Canadiens dressing room are in a hallway where alumni would exit to visit the lounge between periods. Jean and Elise Beliveau would patiently wait for us to finish, while Dickie Moore would jokingly explode after it was over.

Moore would say things like, “You made me wait for that?” or “I thought that would never end!” and everyone would start laughing.

I missed those exchanges when moving into the studio and will miss them even more now.