DETROIT – Ken Holland wants Mike Babcock back behind the Red Wings’ bench, which is why the general manager said Friday that he has decided to grant the 52-year-old coach permission to see if the grass is greener elsewhere.
“What I’ve decided, what Mike Babcock and I have decided I guess, is we’re gonna give Mike permission to explore other opportunities,” Holland said during a 21-minute teleconference with Detroit reporters on Friday afternoon.
The move it’s surprising.
Holland offered an extension to Babcock last June, and again in January the two met to discuss the coach’s future with the organization. An agreement couldn’t be reached either time, and talks were tabled until season’s ended.
Babcock’s current contract ends July 1, which would make him the biggest unrestricted free agent coach that the NHL has ever seen.
By giving him permission to fellow general managers, Holland basically is giving Babcock until the end of this month to kick the tires on some teams with coaching vacancies. Should another team sign the Babcock before his current employment deal expires, that team would owe the Red Wings compensation in the form of a future third-round draft pick.
Teams seeking to speak to him must first get Holland’s permission as well as sign a compensation letter, outlining the remittance should a deal be struck before the end of June.
“As long as a team understands if they sign him we’re getting compensation we’re going to give those teams permission,” Holland said. “Whatever teams want to talk to him, as long as they understand if they sign him or hire him we get draft-pick compensation. If they’re good with that they’re free to talk to him.”
The third-round compensatory pick would have to be completed in the next three drafts, and the year is solely up to the discretion of the team that signs Babcock.
Currently, Toronto, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Edmonton and San Jose have openings, but other teams could also decide to make Babcock a very handsome offer if they’re looking for a long-term coaching solution.
Some teams have already reached out to the Wings this month, but Holland wanted to give it a few days after the team was eliminated by Tampa Bay in a seven-game series.
“I had some teams reach out to me wanting to know if they had permission,” he said. “We did not grant permission. I wanted to have an opportunity to talk to Mike. … When I talked with Mike, Mike said he’d like the opportunity to see what’s out there for him.”
Still, Holland believes that Detroit is the right fit for Babcock, the 26th head coach in franchise history, which is why allowing him to speak to other GMs wasn’t too difficult.
“I want Mike here if Mike wants to be here,” Holland said. “That’s always been my attitude with players and with personnel. If there’s a better opportunity for you elsewhere then you probably should pursue it. I want Mike to be here because he thinks this is the best situation for him, for his family, for his career. He obviously knows everything about us. He’s lived it for 10 years. He knows the manager, he knows our ownership, he knows the market, he knows our fan base, he knows the passion of our fan base, he knows our players, he knows our future, he knows our current team. He knows everything about us.
“I think given his status in the industry he’s certainly, in my opinion, one of the best coaches in the National Hockey League. He asked me if he could have the opportunity to explore the marketplace. I still think we’re a legitimate candidate per se. I believe he’s happy. I believe he has lots of good feelings about being here.”
With the NHL’s annual draft in seven weeks, Holland would like an answer from Babcock sooner than later, and preferably before Memorial Day weekend.
“Certainly there’s other teams looking for a coach and there’s other candidates out there,” Holland said. “I just think, I’d like to bring it to a conclusion. If Mike leaves then we’ve got to hire a coach.”
Should Babcock leave for greener pastures, Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill, who coached the franchise’s AHL affiliate to the Calder Cup championship two years ago, would be given consideration as his successor.
“Certainly Jeff Blashill is a legitimate candidate,” Holland said. “I’m not going to grant anybody permission to talk to Jeff. They’re in the playoffs, so they’re going to play for another 10-12 days at least, but hopefully as we go along here we’re going to come to a conclusion. I’m hoping Mike returns but if Mike doesn’t return certainly Jeff Blashill will be one of the people I’m going to want to interview.”
Babcock has more coaching wins than anyone in club history, compiling a 458-223-105 record – that’s a .649 winning percentage – in 10 regular seasons. With him behind the bench, Detroit has captured the Presidents’ Trophy twice as the league’s regular-season champions and won the Stanley Cup in 2008.
Holland said that he and Babcock came to the decision last week as the two shared a ride to Grand Rapids where they watched the Griffins overcome a 0-2 series deficit to win their best-of-five playoff-opener over Toronto.
The pair of been friends for a long time, and allowing Babcock the chance to shop around, Holland said, is the right thing to do.
“When Mike says ‘Ken, I’d love to be able to talk with other teams see what else is out there’ it kind of tells me he’s happy, he likes it here, but he feels that he’s worked hard, he’s at a prime time in his career and he would like to make sure that staying is the right decision and the only way he … if he decides to stay … the only way he’s going to really know if it’s the right decision if decides to stay is if he gets the opportunity to talk to teams that have interest in him. Ultimately, after spending time with Mike and thinking about it and working with him, I agree.”
Holland leavws Saturday for the Czech Republic, where he’ll watch Detroit’s top prospect Dylan Larkin compete in the 2015 World Championships for the U.S. Meantime, Babcock will arrive Monday in Prague, where he will likely begin the courting process.