The Sabres thought they had Mike Babcock. Instead, he joined their biggest rival.
It should make Toronto’s visits to Buffalo even more interesting.
The two-week courtship of Babcock ended with a stunner Wednesday when the coach agreed to an eight-year deal with the Maple Leafs worth $50 million – the same total the Sabres were reportedly offering. The Leafs will officially introduce Babcock as their 30th coach Thursday morning.
Buffalo thought it was in the driver’s seat to make Babcock their 17th coach. Contract negotiations had gone well, with folks inside the organization feeling for two days that it was close to a done deal, according to a league source.
The Leafs made a late, successful push after Babcock reached out to them earlier in the week, according to TSN.ca. Toronto was previously thought to be out of the running, with the organization moving on by flying coaching candidate Guy Boucher in from Switzerland on Tuesday for a two-day interview, according to TSN.
Boucher suddenly sat in limbo as the Leafs landed hockey’s biggest free agent. The coach who has won two straight Olympic gold medals for Canada will stand behind the bench in the Centre of the Hockey Universe.
The Sabres never entered a bidding war with the Leafs, a source with knowledge of the negotiations said. They were confident of their offer and waited for Babcock’s answer. They got it at 11:35 a.m., according to ESPN. It was not the answer they expected, leading to speculation that Babcock merely turned Buffalo’s offer into a more preferred one with Toronto.
The Sabres had no comment.
Buffalo is forced to move on to other candidates, with Ottawa minor-league coach Luke Richardson heading the list. Former NHL bench bosses Pete DeBoer, Dan Bylsma and Paul MacLean are among the experienced coaches available. The status of Boston coach Claude Julien is in limbo after new GM Don Sweeney said Wednesday that Julien is the coach “as of today.”
Sabres General Manager Tim Murray hired Richardson for the Binghamton Senators after watching him as an assistant in Ottawa. After back-to-back seasons with 44-24-8 records, Richardson and Binghamton missed the playoffs this year.
Bylsma is out of work after being fired by the Penguins in an organizational shakeup last summer. Pittsburgh let him go despite a 252-117-32 record and six straight playoff appearances, including a championship in his first year after taking over as a midseason replacement.
New Jersey President Lou Lamiorello dismissed DeBoer at midseason and stepped behind the bench. DeBoer made the playoffs just once during his six full seasons split between Florida and New Jersey, but it was a memorable experience. He guided the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012.
MacLean was an assistant to Babcock in Anaheim from 2002 to 2004, the same time Murray was with the Ducks as director of player personnel. The Senators replaced MacLean at midseason after he reached the playoffs in two of his three years behind the bench.
There’s no denying Babcock was Buffalo’s first choice. The Sabres put together a comprehensive package for the longtime Detroit coach, giving him a tour of their arena and HarborCenter on May 10. The Sabres also tried to sell Babcock on a bright future. After finishing last in back-to-back seasons, Buffalo is expected to be on the upswing with promising prospects.
Toronto, meanwhile, is just starting its rebuild. The Leafs have a solid defense corps, but they are sorely lacking in forwards, especially at center with Tyler Bozak as the No. 1 middle man. They remain hockey’s richest team and one of the NHL’s marquee franchises, an alluring combination. They could match the Sabres’ deep pockets, with the contract obliterating Babcock’s previous salary of $2 million per season.
“Anytime you’re an unrestricted free agent in the prime of your career, there’s going to be opportunities that probably will stagger you,” Red Wings GM Ken Holland said at a news conference in Detroit. “He had a couple other teams that he talked to that were impressive as well.
“I know it was a difficult decision for him.”