Chris Chelios believes the Detroit Red Wings will have an easier time luring free agents now that Mike Babcock has moved to Toronto.
“It’s going to help even more now that Babs is gone, because those free agents didn’t want to play for Babs,” the Red Wings legend said on-air Friday night during a mid-game interview with 97.1 The Ticket (listen below).
Host Jeff Riger questioned the truth of that statement. Chelios holds a grudge against his last significant NHL head coach, for whom he played from 2005 through 2009.
“It’s very accurate. Ryan Suter [who chose Minnesota over Detroit as a UFA in 2012] is a good friend of mine. It’s nothing personal, but he’s a tough guy to play for if you’re a veteran. If you’re a young guy, I think it’s great because of the accountability. If you don’t play [properly], you’re not going to play,” Chelios said.
“I'm telling you: No veteran free agent is going to want to come in and play for Mike Babcock."
Of course, several veteran UFAs — Stephen Weiss, Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa, Brad Richards, etc. — did sign with the Red Wings during Babcock's tenure.
One of the greatest American defencemen to play the game, Chelios re-signed with Detroit in his mid-40s despite getting benched by Babcock in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final, won by the Red Wings.
Chelios failed to register a point in 14 games that post-season, and in the 28 games he played for Detroit in 2008-09 — as a 47-year-old.
“I wanted to [re-sign] because I wanted to stay in Detroit, but no matter what I did — I tried so hard to win his heart over and I just couldn’t," Chelios, now 55, said. "It took all those years to find a coach that — I wouldn't say not like me, but just didn't want me in the lineup."
Sportsnet's Doug MacLean, a former NHL head coach and general manager, is surprised Chelios would go public with such comments, although he has heard Babcock's toughness used as an excuse for why the Red Wings have failed to land UFAs in the past.
"Chris Chelios is a Hall of Famer. He's entitled to his opinion. I just don't buy it. Toronto has a good team. You've got a chance to come in and play on Auston Matthews' wing. You've got a chance to play with a [Mitchell] Marner. I can see free agents coming here. I do," MacLean told Sportsnet 590 The Fan Wednesday morning.
"[Babcock] has done too good a job here this year to even get into that. In my opinion, free agents look for three things. First thing is money. Second thing they look for is a chance to win. And the third thing they look at is the city. I don't hear a whole lot with free agents that get into talking about coaches. You know why? They come and go."
The idea of rifts forming between Babcock and some veteran players is not a new one (Google: Commodore, Mike), and Chelios's comments appear to spring from personal history.
Jeremy Roenick sounded off on a supposed Babcock-Chelios grudge back in 2009. Both Chelios, who was still playing for Babcock at the time, and Babcock sloughed off Roenick's words.
"I think Cheli and I have a good relationship," Babcock said then. "We bring him back year after year because we feel he's important. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he's a real important guy for us."
Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg made some interesting comments upon Babcock's move to Toronto in the 2015 off-season.
"I want to thank Mike for the time he had here, but I think both him and us probably decided it was time," Zetterberg told MLive.com.
"Now with the additions of [Mike] Green and [Brad] Richards, and the new coach [Jeff Blashill], it's given us a little fresh start. Obviously, it's going to be a different voice behind the bench and sometimes you need that."
Since his arrival to the Maple Leafs, Babcock has vowed to make Toronto an attractive destination for free agents and has been hands-on during the recruitment stage.
The Maple Leafs are expected to be busy this off-season in pursuit of defencemen, complementary forwards, and perhaps a backup goalie.
The Leafs check all of MacLean's boxes for UFAs: they have loads of money, are pegged as a contending team of the future, and play in an attractive market.
"What are the negative sides of playing in Toronto? Zero. None," Babcock said earlier this month. "I can't think of one thing that would be bad about playing in Toronto except if the team is bad. So, I think we put that to bed last year and we're going in the right direction.
"I guess if you want to play where they don't play hockey, then you want to play somewhere else. But, to me, if you want to be in the best hockey market in the world, this is where you want to be. It's fantastic."