As decisions go, this is an easy one. The Sabres should do everything in their power to hire Mike Babcock as their next head coach. He appears to be looking for a change, and a new challenge, after a decade in Detroit. His contract with the Red Wings is set to expire June 30.
Every year, NHL coaching vacancies are filled with guys who had just been fired. The names and faces vary but most situations are interchangeable. They stay in one place too long, their message becomes stale and they try the same approach with a new set of players in a different city.
In a matter of weeks two years ago, John Tortorella was fired by the Rangers and hired by the Canucks while Alain Vigneault was fired by the Canucks and hired by the Rangers. Ken Hitchcock has built a career from giving teams an initial boost before he wears down his players and goes elsewhere.
You know the coaches. Two days after Bruce Boudreau was fired by the Capitals, he was hired by the Ducks. Darryl Sutter, Peter Laviolette, Michel Therrien and Paul Maurice are among many who have hopped around.
Babcock, who appears intent on becoming a free agent, is a different case. He could be the most important person to hit the open market this summer. If one coach can make a bigger difference than a single player, and Babcock can, it stands to reason that he should be compensated like a superstar.
If fit were that simple, Terry and Kim Pegula could fill their luxury liner with cash, invite Babcock on a cruise across Lake Erie and drop anchor in Buffalo. It would, as they say, make quite a splash.
Unfortunately, the Red Wings are refusing to allow other teams to speak with him until further notice. GM Ken Holland is buying time to convince Babcock to stick around. Holland told the Detroit Free Press he had a good conversation Sunday with Babcock and hoped to know either way by the end of May.
What to do, if you’re Tim Murray? Wait, hope and be prepared to pounce. Edmonton, Philadelphia and Toronto likely have him on their short list, too.
Babcock will be the highest-paid coach no matter where he lands, so there’s a sense that money is not his primary issue. Money also can’t be ignored. He reportedly wants at least $4 million per season, doubling his salary from last year and far exceeding the $2.75 million Joel Quenneville makes with the Blackhawks.
The Sabres have spent millions of dollars trying to get straightened out and wasted millions more. They endured two years of losing with the idea they would land a franchise player in the draft. If the Sabres are serious about turning around the ship, they need to get Babcock aboard with an offer he can’t turn down.
They’re in a position in which they’re forced to overpay for top talent, so it could mean rolling out $6 million or $7 million to get their man. And he should be their man. This is nothing against presumptive dark horse Luke Richardson, Hitchcock, Todd McLellan or anyone else, but Babcock is the best coach in the NHL.
He would bring more than X’s and O’s. He would restore credibility and make the Sabres relevant again. He would open doors for top free agents. He would make the same impact Rex Ryan did with the Bills. But he also would bring the Red Wings’ secrets to success. And he should be available.
Remember, when he purchased the franchise, Terry Pegula held up the Red Wings as a model organization. He envisioned the Sabres getting to the playoffs every season and winning Stanley Cups. He was intent on raising the standards before lowering them. This is an opportunity for him to follow through with his initial vision.
Pegula had the right idea when he arrived, but he didn’t have the right people in charge to execute his master plan. Babcock has proven himself at the highest levels. Hiring him is a considerable lesser risk than signing a free agent who might get injured or grow old or lose his competitive edge.
Babcock, 52, is an established star in his prime. Nobody would question his ability, or his staying power, the way they did every other coach in franchise history. It’s not as if he’s going to wake up one day and forget how to coach. He has guided some of the best in the business. Deep down, he’s a teacher more than anything else.
He supposedly was intrigued by the opportunity to coach a young superstar, namely Connor McDavid. The message coming in various forms from the Sabres all season was that Jack Eichel isn’t far behind. Perhaps, with Babcock’s help, Eichel could turn into a better player than McDavid. Everybody would benefit.
Plus, it’s not as if he would be looking at the Buffalo job as a bridge toward his next gig. He would be embracing the Sabres rather than settling for them because he was out of a job. He would want a major say in personnel decisions, but he had made it clear that he’s not interested in becoming a general manager.
He would be the perfect fit. The Sabres need to make it work.