TORONTO — Brendan Shanahan and the Toronto Maple Leafs swung for the fences and landed the biggest free agent of the NHL off-season.
It’s not a franchise cornerstone defenceman or a No. 1 centre but highly sought after coach Mike Babcock, who had his pick of jobs and chose the Leafs on an eight year contract worth $50 million.
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“I’m proud of Shanny, I’m proud that he dreamt big,” Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke said. “He got the big whale.”
It took a bidding war, and the Leafs won it.
Babcock had no shortage of suitors, from Detroit, where he coached for the past 10 years, to Buffalo and San Jose. The man considered the top hockey coach in the world now has a deal that makes him the highest-paid coach in the league.
The coach from Saskatoon will reportedly receive a large signing bonus and make between US$5 million and $6 million per season, well above the $3.5 million Joel Quenneville of Chicago Blackhawks pulls in annually. Babcock joins a Leafs team that has missed the playoffs nine of the past 10 seasons.
Toronto will send a third-round pick to the Red Wings as compensation for Babcock.
Landing Babcock is a major coup for Shanahan, who in the past 13 months since taking over as president has fired general manager Dave Nonis, coach Randy Carlyle, interim Peter Horachek and several assistants and scouts.
“I know there were people that ultimately questioned whether or not Brendan would come in here and ultimately be a great president,” Leiweke said during a news conference announcing the sale of the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts at BMO Field. “You have to give him a lot of credit. This is a vision he had early on.”
Babcock won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008, went to the final in 2003 with Anaheim and in 2009 with the Red Wings and captured two Olympic gold medals for Canada.
With his contract up, the 52-year-old had his pick of staying in Detroit or choosing a new challenge. Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, who said he’s “happy for Mike,” also confirmed he didn’t want to give Babcock a contract longer than five years.
After the Red Wings were eliminated from the playoffs, Babcock expressed concerns about the long-term future with stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in their mid-30s.
Having made the post-season in 11 of his 12 years in the NHL, Babcock joins a Toronto team that has struggled to get there.
Last month Shanahan said he was looking for general manager and coach who “want to be part of this direction and turning it around.”
“We’re hoping to find people that are here for a long time, share this vision,” Shanahan said in April.
Babcock’s eight-year contract — which reportedly includes an out clause after five — shows this is a long-term move. His salary, which is in line with the best in the NFL and NBA, also proves the Leafs are Babcock’s team for the long haul.
“It should give everyone great hope about the future of this organization,” Leiweke said. “Mike Babcock is a phenomenal coach, and I think we’re really lucky to get him.”
Babcock was behind Canada’s bench in the 2010 Vancouver Games, when his team claimed gold on home soil with a thrilling 3-2 overtime win over the United States. He returned for the 2014 Sochi Games and led the Canadians to gold in one of the most dominating Olympic runs in recent history.
Babcock also led Canada to gold at the 2004 world championship and is the only coach to win a Stanley Cup, world championship and Olympic gold medal.
The Leafs will introduce the 30th head coach in franchise history at a news conference Thursday at Air Canada Centre.
Babcock by the numbers:
1 – Number of Stanley Cups won (Detroit, 2008).
2 – Number of Olympic gold medals won with Canada (2010, 2014)
5 – Number of major titles won (two Olympic gold medals, one Stanley Cup, one world championship, one world junior championship)
10 – Number of years with the Red Wings. They made the playoffs each year.
107 – Total points accumulated over 146 games as a defenceman with the McGill Redmen.
.627 – His regular-season winning percentage in the NHL.
2004 – The year he led Canada to a gold medal at the world hockey championship. He is the only head coach to win a Stanley Cup, Olympic gold medal and world championship.