30 Thoughts: Top 3 contenders for Mike Babcock

Damien Cox and Elliotte Friedman recap all the top news from around the NHL including an update on Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock.

“No one should automatically assume I am leaving Detroit.”

That was Mike Babcock’s opening line when I spoke to him Saturday morning, and here’s why I believe that is true: There are teams out there saying, “We want him, but what happens if we don’t get him?”

I asked Babcock if he was going to visit any city he was considering, and his answer was an unqualified yes. He is going to the World Championships on Monday and not returning until the 17th. Detroit’s self-imposed deadline is May 25. That leaves him one week to go where he wants to go. How many visits can he realistically fit into that time, especially if we are talking about geographically different locales such as Buffalo, Edmonton, Philadelphia and San Jose?

Look at Washington, which wakes up on Mother’s Day one victory away from the Eastern Conference final. A year ago, GM-to-be Brian MacLellan told his owners, “We have to go out and get Barry Trotz. But, if we wait around, someone else may get him.” The Capitals did not wait around. That did not go unnoticed.

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Maybe someone shows up at the World Championships with Homer Simpson’s “Trillion-Dollar Bill” to change Babcock’s mind. Until that happens, some teams are going to be preparing alternate plans. One major contender for his services — Edmonton — is already doing it. (More on that shortly.)

Babcock said there would be three major considerations to any job he takes. First, his working relationship with the owner and the general manager. Second, “What is the plan for winning?” as he put it. Third, his family’s desires in all this.

That, left me with one follow-up — the contract.

Babcock would not discuss it, but in conversations with other clubs around they league, they dismissed it as a concern. “Whatever happens,” one GM said, “he’s going to be the highest-paid coach in the league. It’s not like someone’s going to say to him, ‘Well, your wife wants to be here, so we’re only going to pay you $50.’”

I broke it down to three groups:

THE TOP CONTENDERS: Detroit, Buffalo and Philadelphia

Until Saturday afternoon, I had Edmonton in this group. But they are making a pre-emptive strike (as mentioned, more on that to come.) For now, the Oilers are removed from this section.

There is a lot of skepticism from outside that Babcock will stay. You can certainly understand why, but it may come down to who decides to wait him out and who doesn’t. Ken Holland was travelling to the Czech Republic on Saturday, so he was unavailable to chat. The last Detroit offer was in January, and according to several sources, would have made Babcock the highest-paid coach in the NHL.

The Ilitch family — which threw $306M to Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez last season — is not afraid of wielding its financial might. Maybe they get outbid by someone else, but Babcock will be well-compensated if he stays.

Yes, a frustrated and disappointed Babcock wondered about the future of his franchise after the Game 7 loss to Tampa. But, when he looks around, will he see a more resourceful club than one that’s made the playoffs 25 years in a row?

The Sabres have Tim Murray (who worked with Babcock in Anaheim), an owner who wants to do all the right things, lots of young pieces and, you assume, Jack Eichel. Remember that minutes before the lottery, Murray called Eichel “a number-one centre on a Stanley Cup contender,” before temporarily losing his mind moments later.

I see two challenges for the Sabres. First, Mike Babcock is wired to win. He cannot stand to lose more than anyone I’ve ever met. Yes, Buffalo wants to get better, but how long will it take? Can he tolerate two or three more years of defeat? Not easily. Second, while Babcock does not need absolute personnel control, he likes to have a say. Holland is excellent at managing their relationship. He understands when to say yes and when to say no. Murray likes to have control. How hard will it be for them to come to a consensus?

Ron Hextall’s done a very good job of staying in the cone of silence. But his peers across the NHL believe he has been waiting for this, planning meticulously for the opportunity. You have to think Toronto will make the largest financial offer, but other teams think Philly is going to be up there, too.

What does Babcock think of Claude Giroux, Steve Mason, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and their young defencemen not yet in the NHL? Once news began to break that maybe Edmonton was out, Philly became a popular pick for Babcock’s destination.

YEAH, I DON’T KNOW: Toronto, San Jose

A few weeks ago, before Edmonton won the lottery, I heard an awesome line about what the Oilers would have to do to get Babcock. “Daryl Katz should offer him two Rexalls,” one exec said.

If Toronto wants him, the offer is going to have to be ridiculous. But, they’re the Maple Leafs, so they can. No one’s giving a straight answer about it, but there was an interesting private plane in Detroit yesterday. Here’s the thing, though: Brendan Shanahan said at the lottery that even if Toronto got McDavid, they still had a long rebuild.

Can anyone who really knows Babcock see him losing for so long? It won’t be good for him, the players, or the franchise. It is not in his DNA. He wants to be the best, and he won’t be able to be the best here.

I could be wrong, but that’s my guess.

There’s no proof, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Sharks were one of the first teams to ask for permission. Don Cherry picked them as a good landing place, so it’s not like northern California is a foreign idea. Again though, I’d be curious to hear where Babcock thinks the team is going.

Also, what is their budget for coaches? Owner Hasso Plattner, asked Friday by local reporters if cost was an issue, replied, “Cost in general is an issue.”


I call them the Ray Sheros in the sense that it comes out of nowhere. All of a sudden, we’re invited to a conference call and Lou Lamoriello announces Ray Shero is the Devils’ new GM as reporters drop their phones.

But, a lot of them don’t make sense. For example, his family loved Anaheim, and there was a ton of pressure on Bruce Boudreau. But if the Ducks go to the Final Four, they’re not changing coaches. Babcock’s got a relationship with the Bowmans. Things haven’t always been so harmonious behind the scenes, but Chicago wins. They could have three Cups in five years.

Jim Nill knows Babcock, but is there any reason to think this makes sense? Mike Babcock went to McGill University. He might be one of the only people in the world who would be accepted without French fluency. But Michel Therrien’s done a really good job in Montreal.

Pittsburgh is on-record as saying no changes are coming. There’s still no decision one way or the other on Ken Hitchcock. On paper, St. Louis makes sense — provided there is an opening at all. Like in San Jose, there’s a budget question with the Blues.

Set your odds, place your bets. Babwatch is underway.


1. The other option for Babcock: does he sit? Does he wait to see what opens up during the 2015-16 season or afterwards? It would be like the fight scene from Anchorman as the TV networks battled for him.

2. Peter Chiarelli and Todd Nelson had a lengthy meeting on Saturday. The Oilers aren’t commenting about their situation, but several sources both in North America and attending the World Championships say Edmonton is concerned about waiting for Babcock and not getting him. As a result, they are working on closing a deal with Todd McLellan. At this point, it’s as much up to the coach as it is to the Oilers, but at least one other team pursuing McLellan was hearing Saturday that a deal was close, if not done. Whatever the case, Edmonton is making it known they will close on him rather than wait to talk to Babcock.

3. If Babcock leaves, what does it mean for the Red Wings? When all of this started, the popular pick was McLellan to replace him, with other execs and coaches believing his history with Detroit made that the job he wanted. If Edmonton closes, this won’t happen. Holland told local reporters Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill will get an interview, and that won’t be a simple courtesy. Blashill will be a serious contender for this opening, if there is one.

4. There’s a pretty well-known story that when Babcock was coaching in the AHL, Holland told him to go get experience elsewhere before he would be considered to lead Detroit. The relevance is: does the same apply to Blashill? I’m told the answer is no, that Holland considers him ready. He knows all their young players, won a Calder Cup in Grand Rapids two years ago, lost to eventual champion Texas last year with a depleted lineup and is on a good run this time. He’s the highest-paid coach in the AHL — by a significant margin, I’ve heard — for a reason. Also, does Detroit really want a situation where it loses both Babcock and Blashill?

5. Paul MacLean is the other potential Red Wing candidate speculated about. When Toronto contacted him after firing Randy Carlyle, word was they offered to keep him as an assistant (in the $400,000 range) if he did not hold the main job next year. So, if Babcock does not take that job, maybe Maclean is revisited.

6. McLellan told The Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones that assistant Jay Woodcroft, who was with him in San Jose and is on the Team Canada bench at the Worlds, will stay part of his staff at the next destination. Sunday is a big day for the Woodcrofts. Jay will be coaching against his brother Todd, an assistant with Switzerland. Todd is Calgary’s scouting director and won a Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2012. A third brother, Craig, is on the Team Belarus staff. Craig was drafted by the Blackhawks in 1988, then played for 15 years across North America and Europe. Great times for Frank and Jem Woodcroft. No doubt Jem spends a good chunk of her Mother’s Day hoping Team Canada doesn’t run up the score on Switzerland, since I’m told Todd is her favourite.

7. Hearing Edmonton (among others) has some interest in Dean Kukan, a Swiss defenceman. He will be 22-years-old in July and spent the past two seasons with Lulea in the Swedish league. He was injured early at the worlds, which is affecting his play, but is a good skater. Big question will be if he’s ready for North America. Another defenceman getting looked at is 27-year-old Czech Jakub Nakladal, who plays for Turku in the Finnish league. But I’m less sure of his future.

8. As European-based scorers like Steve Moses and Artem Panarin find NHL employment, another one hopes to make the leap. Derek Ryan, a Spokane-born former Alberta Golden Bear, led the Swedish league in scoring with 60 points in 55 games for Orebro. He’s 28 and not the biggest guy in the world, but everyone’s looking for the next Tyler Johnson. Toronto had some discussions about him, although I’m not sure they’ll do it. Another possibility, apparently, is Washington.

9. Still waiting for some final clarification on Dave Tippett with Arizona. In a perfect world, he stays. He’s built a dream home there and put a lot of effort into the Coyotes. If the team has a competitive payroll — not a max number, but a competitive one — my guess is it all works out. But if they are a floor team, change is possible. You could see the strain last year took on him and he won’t want to go through it again. There would be a lot of interest. He’s got a history with Doug Armstrong, but, again, there’s no opening in St. Louis.

10. A few other coaching notes: After a year away, John Tortorella would like to get back in. So would his former assistant, Mike Sullivan, although it sounds like they are not going to be together. Tortorella preferred to keep his business private, but word is he recognizes he was so shaken by his firing in New York, he should’ve taken time off.

11. In the AHL, Carolina is looking for a new coach in Charlotte. Two names jump right out: Nelson (depending on what happens in Edmonton) and Florida assistant Mark Morris. Both interviewed with the Hurricanes before Bill Peters was hired and both have strong American League resumes.

12. Wouldn’t be surprised if NHL execs at the Worlds spend some time chatting with Geoff Ward to gauge his future. Ward, who won a Stanley Cup as an assistant in Boston, led Mannheim to a German championship on a team featuring Kurtis Foster, Jochen Hecht and Glen Metropolit. Ward is an assistant on the National Team for this event, but he’ll probably want to burn the tape of the Canada game.

13. Why is Glen Sather denying Jeff Gorton permission to interview for GM jobs? For one, he doesn’t believe anyone should get to talk until the season is over. But, is it also because Gorton is Sather’s successor? Lou Lamoriello yielded to Ray Shero at age 72. Sather will be 72 in September.

14. For all the questions about Shero’s autonomy, the Devils’ new GM had the advantage of time. The Penguins were obligated to pay him for awhile, which is why they didn’t ask for compensation. If Shero thought Lamoriello was going to interfere, he wouldn’t have taken the job. There were going to be other options. These are two guys who know each other and are comfortable with each other. But, we’ll really see Shero’s power if Devils’ players sprout facial hair.

15. Shero told a great story about his relationship with Lamoriello. “A few years ago, I was having a disagreement with Dean Lombardi over something,” Shero said. “We get along very well, but disagreed over this. To settle this, I said to him, ‘Why don’t I call Lou and see what he says and get back to you?’ We agreed on that. So I called (Lamoriello) and he said, ‘Based on the information you have given me, here’s what I think.’ He agreed with me, so I called Dean and told him Lou was on my side. That was the end of that.” What was it about? “I won’t tell you. You can ask Dean, but he won’t tell you either.” So far, that’s true.

16. Favourite Lamoriello story: years ago, New Jersey was travelling to Toronto for a game and hit major turbulence. Several players and staff were shaken by the experience, with one saying they were nearly clobbered by an iPod that flew through the cabin. “I’m sitting there freaking out,” Scott Gomez said then, “And see Lou totally calm, looking normal. Does anything bother this guy?”

17. When I spoke to Shero, he hadn’t talked yet to any players, but said the first he would contact was Patrik Elias. He wouldn’t go into detail, but it’s not hard to see he’s going to preach a rebuild and wants to make sure veterans are on-board. If you follow the NBA, you know Devils owner Josh Harris is patient. He owns the Philadelphia 76ers, currently in the midst of the biggest rebuild since sports were invented. “You can’t do in the NHL what they are doing in the NBA…the CBA doesn’t allow it,” Shero said. “But we aren’t going to do anything now that is going to hurt us in three or four years. This is not a short-term fix. In Pittsburgh, we traded for James Neal. How many James Neals are out there right now?”

18. No secret the Devils are looking for offence. I wrote weeks ago that Eric Gelinas might be trade bait, but with Shero in charge, things may be different. He did say that one of the ways New Jersey can add scoring is by making its defence more assertive in the attack.

19. Now that the season’s over, it’s time for Devan Dubnyk and the Wild to have a serious conversation. Does Dubnyk take a slight discount because he’s found a great fit? My bet is Minnesota wants to get this done for somewhere between $4-$4.5M, but would anyone be surprised if Dubnyk, at the apex of his earning potential, goes for $5M? Does Minnesota offer longer term — and more overall money — in exchange for a lower AAV? That might be the solution.

20. After a tumultuous summer of 2014, Predators GM David Poile plans to be much quieter this time. “It’s a more exciting atmosphere because we were winning,” he said last week. “Pekka (Rinne) was back; it allowed us to play differently…You can’t take anything for granted. It’s a close league, you have to prove yourself every day and every year, but we feel way more confident than last summer.” The first-round loss to Chicago hurt, but he thought they played well. “If you would have told me we knocked their goalies out in two of the six games, I’d have thought we win the series. We need to become a more consistent team, but you can’t do it if you’re constantly making major changes.” It’s a difficult line to walk. Yes, you lost in the first round, but look who they lost to, with two of those defeats in multiple overtimes.

21. Poile’s old boss, Cliff Fletcher, said one of the major reasons Calgary won the Stanley Cup in 1989 was being in a division with Edmonton. The dynastic Oilers pushed the Flames to be better. Poile says the comparison is not perfect, because you can still cross-over in the playoffs as Winnipeg did this season. In 2012-13 and 2013-14, the Predators had 38 points in 47 games against the other Central teams. This year, it was 35 in 29. Much better. “If you can’t compete with the teams in your division, you can’t make it. There’s no hope.”

22. The Predators and Mike Fisher are working towards an extension, but it’s hard not to look at the roster and wonder how much Seth Jones’ next contract affects things. He’s a year away from restricted free agency. “So is Filip Forsberg,” Poile added. But he stopped there. “I don’t want to be so transparent; keeping this internal is the way I would like to go.” Poile also praised Colin Wilson: “Much better, fell off a little bit with the rest of the group towards the end of the season, but played really good in the playoffs.” Then he laughed. “I’m negotiating a contract with him so I can’t say too much more.”

23. Finally, on Nashville: Was Poile disappointed in Rinne’s playoff performance? “We don’t even make the playoffs if he doesn’t give us our swagger. He’s our glue, he’s been out of this world. No way.”

24. A couple of teams were really impressed with how Matt O’Connor handled the final process of his NHL decision. Made sure to call specific people on each team (not just the GM) to let them know he wasn’t coming, thanking them for their help along the way.

25. So now that O’Connor is going to Ottawa, who’s leaving? It’s not an easy question to answer, because some potential partners may prefer Craig Anderson while others might choose Robin Lehner, pending his recovery. It’s believed Buffalo would have interest in Anderson, but would the Senators send another goalie in the division (Ben Bishop)? If one of them can get the Senators a top-six forward, that’s the guy who goes.

26. As much as we’ll focus on the goalies, Ottawa’s biggest off-season decision may be an honest appraisal of Jared Cowen’s NHL future. You’re selling low right now, and when you see how far many of their young players came in the second-half, is it better to give him another shot when he gets healthy. Inconsistency may drive you crazy, but not as crazy as seeing a player you drafted and developed shine somewhere else.

27. Alexander Ovechkin has 475 goals since arriving in the NHL. He’s also in the top six in hits during that time. The other five (a list that includes Dustin Brown, Cal Clutterbuck and Brooks Orpik) has combined for 482 scores. There’s no one like him right now. One opponent had a great line: “The ‘glide’ is gone from his game. He’s Clutterbuck…with 55 goals.”

28. As we head into Game 6 of Washington/Rangers, Braden Holtby is playing to historic levels. He’s got a .951 save percentage in 11 games these playoffs. Since the NHL started tracking this stat, no one’s played that many games in one post-season with a save percentage this good. The only goalies to play more than three games and have a better number are Anderson (.972 this year in four games) and Marty Turco (.952, seven games in 2007). Dominik Hasek hit .950 in 1994. That was also in seven games. Holtby’s at .938 in 32 career postseason appearances, also a record. The only man better than that in more than four games is Mike Smith (.945 in 19).

29. Ryan Getzlaf is having a dominant playoff. What’s really changed is his temper. Last year, Ryan Garbutt and Antoine Roussel pushed him to his limits. They sticked him, targeted his injured jaw, everything you could think of to make him crazy as Dallas took the Ducks to six games. You can see Calgary trying the same, but he’s just ignoring it and playing. Huge, huge step in his already impressive growth.

30. Wondered about the pucks with built-in sensors used at All-Star during the Game 3 goal dispute in the Calgary/Anaheim series. Would those pucks have erased any question? I’m told the answer is no, as location determination would be limited to where the sensors are physically located in the puck. So, they wouldn’t be suited to determine whether the entire puck is across the line.

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