Mike Babcock: His Last Bang in Detroit?

In the movie Amadeus F. Murray Abraham (who plays Salieri) gently chides Mozart (played by Thomas Hulce) about a symphony or opera Mozart had performed before the public; telling Mozart, “You didn’t even give the audience a good bang at the end to let them know the show was over” (or words to that effect).

In what might be his final performance as the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings (which I personally hope will not be the case) Mike Babcock is giving the proud citizens of Hockeytown a bloody, great big bang with a stellar performance after 11 glorious seasons at the helm.

Babcock is in the last year of his coaching contract with the Detroit Red Wings and there still remains no word as to whether his contract will be extended or whether Babcock will move on his accord to a new coaching challenge elsewhere?

Mike Babcock’s future is the great mystery in the NHL today but what’s amazing about the Mike Babcock story is that Babcock himself has not allowed the speculation to impair his coaching performance at all.

Indeed his coaching performance this season (as it always has been) has been nothing less than brilliant; inspiring; and characteristically typical of what remains the greatest NHL coaching performance of the 21st century (thus far according to my rating system).

Mike Babcock has seamlessly and quietly restored the Wings to dominance after two seasons of rebuilding (experiencing the losses of venerable veterans and slowly inculcating the arrival of younger, newer players into the Detroit Red Wing hockey politic).

Detroit has remained very near the top of the Eastern Conference since the season began. They have played consistent, solid, disciplined, industrious hockey (for Mike Babcock there can be no other way). Whereas during the previous two season Detroit struggled to reach the playoffs (and succeeding, mind you). This season, Detroit is near the top of the Eastern Conference race.

I have been singing Mike Babcock’s praises for years and this season provides ample proof as to why his praises must always be sung. As mentioned before he remains (by my rating system) the greatest NHL coach of the 21st Century (although Joel Quenneville and Claude Julien have been rapidly closing in on Babcock in recent years). Last season he became the greatest Detroit Red Wings head coach of all time when he surpassed the late Jack Adams in team wins.

If the Red Wings management is smart (and the record shows that nearly always they have been so) then it is imperative they offer Babcock the contract extension he truly and richly deserves; when a team has been blessed for 11 years with the greatest head coach of the century you don’t let him go. You hang onto him for dear life because a great coach like Mike Babcock comes along very rarely in the annals of sports history.

But there is also this to consider: Detroit can indeed make the extension offer but will Mike Babcock take it? He is not obligated to stay. He has the option of moving on—if he wants to. But is moving on truly in his personal best interest?

And if he does move on, where will he go?

The Toronto Maples Leafs are the Eve of hockey: alluring, enticing, the ultimate challenge in the NHL today—how to end the longest Stanley Cup drought in the game today—but also, the gravest risk for any head coach who tries to pick the gauntlet thrown down by hockey history.

Many a great coach has tried to end the Toronto curse only to be defeated in the process: Pat Burns, Pat Quinn, Ron Wilson, and Randy Carlyle all tried their hands at ending the drought without success. In Wilson’s and Carlyle’s cases their records and reputations were sullied in the process.

If Babcock goes to Toronto he will not enjoy the ideal conditions he enjoyed in Detroit. In Hockeytown he had the best general manager in the NHL today providing him with first rate talent. The Detroit organization is the crown jewel in the NHL with its emphasis on class and securing and taking care of its talented employees at all levels. The same cannot be said about Toronto. The Leafs front office has shown itself to be mediocrity personified. The internecine struggles inside the locker room and the front office make accepting a coaching offer with Toronto a very hazardous proposition—one Babcock should avoid.

What about San Jose? If the Sharks finally lose patience with Todd McLellan and fire him after enduring so many playoff failures wouldn’t it be a brilliant coup if Doug Wilson reached out to Mike Babcock and ask him to end the Sharks Stanley Cup drought (the Sharks have never even reached the finals let alone win the Stanley Cup)?

And then there is my personal fantasy of the Philadelphia Flyers hiring Babcock in place of Craig Berube and allowing Babcock to give the Flyers team the ice-water enema reality check the franchise desperately needs. (Sadly that will never happen. I doubt that Ed Snider would have the courage to go outside the Flyers family to find a new coach—although that’s exactly what the teams needs to do).

No matter where Mike Babcock goes, he is the prime position of writing his own ticket with the ultimate destination being the Hockey Hall-of Fame as a builder.

He deserves no less.