When it comes to Mike Babcock, the Buffalo Sabres aren't just kicking tires. They're at the front of the line for a hotter free agent than any NHL player will be come July 1. This is a coach who has won a Stanley Cup, been to the Cup final three times and pulled in two Olympic gold medals for good measure.
Babcock headed to the World Championships in Prague on Monday after touring HarborCenter Sunday night and meeting in First Niagara Center with owner Terry Pegula, General Manager Tim Murray and Pegula's wife, Kim. He said last week he would want to visit any potential city he might leave Detroit for and his window to make a decision about possibly leaving is expected to stretch only until May 25.
Babcock is expected to be in Prague for the next six days, ostensibly watching Team USA standout and top Detroit prospect Dylan Larkin. Sabres fans on the Babcock Watch certainly should be rooting hard for the continued strong of play of Buffalo presumed first-round pick Jack Eichel for Team USA. There will be no better selling point for Babcock than an in-person look at the player set to become the key to the Sabres' renaissance.
After all, Babcock mused after the Wings' Game Seven loss to Tampa that there's no one in the wings, pardon the pun, to replace soon-to-be 37-year-old Pavel Datsyuk. So why not go to a place about to draft an 18-year-old who would be the No. 1 overall pick in just about any non-Connor McDavid draft year?
Babcock wants to get Paid -- with a capital 'P' -- and several teams can take care of that, not just the Sabres. But it's also widely known in hockey circles that Babcock wants to use his high profile and pending free agency as a way to boost salaries for not just himself but for his coaching contemporaries as well.
It's believed that Chicago's Joel Quenneville is currently the highest-paid NHL coach, making only about $2.75 million per season. Babcock could be seeking a deal in the $5 million range annually, something that Pegula likely won't hesitate to offer. Pegula just paid a similar amount to Rex Ryan to lead the Bills and is known to want to make a similar big-hire splash with the Sabres.
Moreover, Pegula obviously wouldn't hesitate to overpay in the $6-7 million per season range -- at many years of a long-term agreement -- if that's what it would take to seal the deal too.
Why might this be so important to Babcock? While players are making plenty of money in the NHL these days, coaches are seriously lagging behind their counterparts in the other major pro sports.
Every NFL coach makes at least $3.5 million, the average is over $4.8 million and 10 coaches are believed to make at least $6 million. Seven NBA coaches are at $5 million and up, topped by the $11 million annual extension signed last summer by San Antonio's Gregg Popovich. Salary information is sketchier in baseball but it's known there are at least four MLB managers (Chicago's Joe Maddon, Los Angeles' Mike Scioscia, San Francisco's Bruce Bochy and New York's Joe Girardi) making at least $4 million.
According to Sportsnet, the Red Wings made Babcock another offer last week -- a multi-year deal that is believed to be in the $4 million-plus range. It was turned down so he could pursue his options. As Babcock heads overseas, here's an updated look at how the candidates for his services might rate:
Buffalo: The ownership question is easy. Babcock will get paid. The GM question is easy as Murray hired Babcock to be his AHL coach while both were in the then-Anaheim Mighty Ducks organization in the early 2000s. You have to assume Murray will keep Babcock in the loop on things far more than Ted Nolan ever was. The prospect pool is deep, albeit inexperienced. There's some NHL forwards at the ready like Tyler Ennis, Evander Kane and Matt Moulson. Good veteran leadership in Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges. And might Babcock not look at Rasmus Ristolainen as his version of Nicklas Lidstrom at some point in the future?
It's pretty easy for Babcock to say there's plenty of reasons to move from Hockeytown to the self-proclaimed Hockey Heaven. The biggest drawback: Is Babcock prepared to lose? Only the most cockeyed Sabres optimist would say the team would be playoff contenders next year, even with the additions of Eichel and Kane and what other moves Murray makes. The Sabres, remember, finished 44 points out of the final playoff spot this season.
That said, it's reasonable to think Buffalo could be a playoff contender by the 2016-17 season and be poised to go well into the postseason within another year or two after that. Babcock is known to detest losing. Given what happened this season, that's probably a good trait for this organization to have in a new coach. Still, you wonder if Babcock feels the money will be enough to stem the inevitable growing pains he will have to endure with the Blue & Gold in the next couple of years if he signs on.
If Babcock doesn't come, things get quite a bit more interesting. The Sabres are interested in Team Canada coach Todd McLellan, formerly of San Jose, and Murray is believed to have already had a phone conversation with him from Prague. McLellan, however, appears to be on the fast track to joining McDavid in Edmonton. If the Sabres get neither Babcock nor McLellan, the candidacy of Binghamton Senators coach Luke Richardson will certainly grow from his connection of building a Calder Cup-winning team with Murray for Ottawa organization.
Detroit: On the one hand, if Babcock was staying, he's had all year to re-sign with the team he's coached since 2005 so why hasn't he done it already? On the other hand, the pull of family is reportedly strong and Detroit would remain their choice. It's hard to imagine long-time owner Mike Ilitch wouldn't pony up, especially with a new arena coming online in 2017. But maybe the Wings are going to go to about $4 million or a little more and just call it a day. If Babcock leaves, they simply promote longtime AHL coach Jeff Blashill from Grand Rapids and move on.
Babcock himself insists Detroit is far from out of the running. Even though the Wings haven't escaped the second round the last six years, they are still running some terrific young talent on the ice. His wistful talk of Datsyuk being irreplaceable has to be viewed in the context of a bitter Game Seven loss as well.
"My family loves Detroit. It's way easier for my family to stay here, 100 percent easier," Babcock said last week. "My kids are all going away, but they still want to come back to Detroit on Thanksgiving. They want to come back to Detroit in the summer to work out. So it's way easier for them." Hmmm.
Philadelphia: We're coming up on the 40th anniversary of the Flyers' last Stanley Cup, their Game Six triumph over the Sabres in Memorial Auditorium on May 27, 1975. Owner Ed Snider is 82 years old and desperate for one more title after losing in the Cup final six times since '75, so he'll pay. With talent like Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek plus plenty of prospects on defense, there's a good talent base and that's attractive. Ron Hextall is just a second-year GM but a longtime NHL player who garners respect. But it's a tough, unforgiving fan base and large media corps that will demand instant results. Things would be far easier on those fronts for Babcock in Buffalo.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Toronto: Media covering the Leafs are abuzz with private plane records showing trips between Toronto and Detroit on Saturday but there were no reported sightings of the coach in Toronto like there were in Buffalo on Sunday. The Leafs have the tradition Babcock would want and the money to pay him. But what else do they have?
They've yet to set the course on a rebuild, have yet to trade their core players like Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf or Joffrey Lupul like the Sabres did when they excised the likes of Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. And they're not getting McDavid or Eichel either. It's reasonable to wonder if they're going to be last in the Atlantic Division next year, and maybe for a few more years after that. Hard to see that being too attractive, no matter how much money team president Brendan Shanahan waves at Babcock.
Edmonton: The Oilers became the early leaders in the Babcock Derby once they won the draft lottery and the right to take McDavid. With former Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson and ex-Boston GM Peter Chiarelli now in charge, it looked like an Olympic reunion with Babcock was a pretty good bet. But reports out of Prague the last few days have Oilers/Team Canada players Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle doing plenty of due diligence on McLellan and enjoying their time playing for him. It seems like Edmonton may go that route and not wait on Babcock.
St. Louis/Boston/San Jose: These are all veteran teams Babcock might want to take a shot with because they have some established players. The Blues and Bruins, of course, don't have an opening right now but speculation persists they might move on from Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien, respectively. Boston's core is aging, however, while St. Louis has plenty of standout players who have underachieved in the playoffs in recent years. And Vladimir Tarasenko could be Babcock's Datsyuk. After years of playoff failures, the Sharks might need heavy retooling as well.
New Jersey: The Devils have a new GM in Ray Shero and the immediate thought is he could hire Dan Bylsma, his former Cup-winning coach in Pittsburgh, to join him in New Jersey. It's hard to see how Babcock would think there's much in the pipeline for this organization, although it certainly has a big tradition of winning the last 20 years. Some observers think money could also be an issue, but co-owner Josh Harris told New Jersey reporters during a presss conference Saturday that's not necessarily the case.
Pittsburgh: Even though Pens president David Morehouse said the team was committed to first-year coach Mike Johnston in the wake of its first-round elimination to the Rangers, the school of thought was that Johnston could be pushed out if Babcock could be enticed into a reunion with Olympic stalwart Sidney Crosby. GM Jim Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Saturday he was committed to the present staff. Observers still wonder what happens if No. 87 speaks up.
The Tampa Bay-Montreal loser: Neither team is going to be happy dropping this series, which moves to Game Six Tuesday in Tampa with the Lightning leading, 3-2, and desperate not to blow a 3-0 lead. You wonder if Lightning GM Steve Yzerman will make a play for the coach of his final NHL season and the man who led his Team Canada squad to a gold medal if coach Jon Cooper fritters away this round. Remember, Babcock and the Wings nearly took down the heavily-favored Lightning in a seven-game first round where Cooper did not distinguish himself.
As for the Habs, Babcock went to McGill University in Montreal and has to be intrigued by the tradition of the game's most storied franchise and the talent of a 110-point team. But would the Habs really remove a Francophone coach in Michel Therrien to make a play on Babcock after a season like that?