Mike Babcock, expected to become the biggest free agent in hockey, will have his pick of employment from several eager suitors. All will offer millions of dollars. But Detroit’s coach has made it clear he needs more.
“You’ve got to have big-time players up the middle and on the back to be successful,” Babcock said after the Red Wings’ season ended Wednesday night.
Though their centers and defensemen are young, the Sabres have the pieces Babcock desires.
Jack Eichel is set to join Sam Reinhart and Zemgus Girgensons as the Sabres’ top centers. Zach Bogosian, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov are blue-liners drafted in the first 16 picks. If Buffalo is going to turn its fortunes around, those players will be the key.
The other four teams with coaching vacancies have holes at one or both of Babcock’s cornerstones. Philadelphia has Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn up front, but its defense is lacking. Toronto boasts Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and (for now) Dion Phaneuf on the blue line, but Tyler Bozak is the Maple Leafs’ top center. Edmonton will have center Connor McDavid join Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but its defense is a question mark. New Jersey needs talented skaters everywhere.
While the Sabres seem to be in good position, other teams could join the bidding for Babcock. St. Louis, which is stacked at every position, is weighing the fate of coach Ken Hitchcock. Boston, which fired General Manager Peter Chiarelli after a disappointing season, might follow by ditching coach Claude Julien.
Babcock’s status is expected to become clearer in the coming days. With a contract that expires June 30, he declined to address his future following Wednesday’s Game Seven loss in Tampa Bay. He said he will talk about it at the team’s season-ending news conference.
Babcock, who has coached the Red Wings for 10 seasons, certainly dropped hints that his time is up in Detroit.
“I will tell you this, our team’s not as good as it was,” he told reporters in Amalie Arena. “It’s very evident.”
In another good sign for Sabres fans, Babcock essentially endorsed the tanking philosophy that Buffalo has embraced during the past two seasons. He said Tampa Bay’s ability to rebuild through the draft allowed the Lightning to eliminate his club, which has made the playoffs for 24 straight seasons.
“They were bad here for long enough that they were able to rebuild it and they got good young players,” Babcock said. “And they’ve got young players in key positions.
“Three of our best players are 34, 35, 37,” Babcock said, referring to defenseman Niklas Kronwall and forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. “We’ve got lots of good young players, no question about it, and ideally we’ve got some good ones coming. But who’s going to replace Pav? I don’t think Pav’s going anywhere right away, but that’s what you’ve got to do.
“In the end, you’ve got to have big-time players up on the middle and on the back to be successful. Those are questions in our organization that we work towards. We’ve been drafting good and developing good, but we’ve been winning too much. That’s the facts.”
With the roughest stretch of the Sabres’ rebuild behind them, it could be an ideal time for Babcock to climb aboard. Of course, the future Hockey Hall of Famer might not desire any stage of rebuilding and could prefer a team closer to the Cup. He’s not allowed to negotiate with other clubs until his contract expires, though Detroit could grant permission.
If the Sabres don’t want to wait until summer, the list of available coaches includes Luke Richardson, Dan Bylsma, Todd McLellan and Pete DeBoer. Richardson, hired by Murray to coach Ottawa’s minor-league team, said he hasn’t talked to his former boss in nearly a year.
“People have focused on the connection, but I haven’t talked to him since his 25th wedding anniversary last summer,” Richardson told the Ottawa Citizen. “I’ve heard the rumors that they could go with an experienced guy like Babcock or a new guy like Richardson. Well, if that’s the case, I know who I would hire.
“Maybe I will get some interviews, but it doesn’t mean there will be job offers,” Richardson told the newspaper. “Maybe there will be some feelers to see if I want to be an assistant coach. And if that’s the case, it’s an easy answer. I’m not interviewing for that. I enjoyed my time as a part-time assistant coach in Ottawa, but I knew at the end of that time I wanted to be a head coach.”