DETROIT – Now that Mike Babcock has left Detroit for a lucrative contract north of the border, the question is who will coach the Red Wings next season?
The general consensus seems that Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill is the heir apparent; however, general manager Ken Holland said Wednesday he will take some time before naming the 27th head coach in Red Wings’ history.
“I reached out to Blash to say ‘Blash, in the next little while you’re the first guy I want to talk to. You’ve been in the organization. You’ve been the head coach in Grand Rapids. You’ve been Mike’s assistant coach,’ ” Holland said during a 30-plus minute news conference held in the Wings’ locker room.
“So that’s the first step,” he added. “Once I have that meeting I’ll know what the next step is.”
Holland has stated for nearly a year that his priority was to retain Babcock, though he also said last month that should the veteran coach decide to leave he’d shake his hand and thank him for a job well done.
“I wanted Mike back, if at the end of the day, he wanted to be here, if he felt at the end of the process this was the best fit for him,” Holland said. “I know it was a difficult decision for him. He has roots here. He’s been here for 10 years. His family has roots here. You get close to the players. … I know it was a difficult decision, but at the end of the day he made a decision that was best for him. Now I have some decisions to make.”
The 52-year-old Babcock has accepted a new deal – reportedly worth an astounding $50 million for the next eight seasons – to become the next coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“One of the things I said to Mike, anytime you’re an unrestricted free agent in the prime of your career there’s going to be opportunities that will stagger you,” Holland said. “I use the word stagger because I’m aware of what the industry pays, but in order to get people you have to go above and beyond the industry standards to try and get somebody to come to you. I’m happy for Mike. Mike gave Red Wing fans and our organization 10 fabulous years. I loved working with Mike.”
As compensation for signing Babcock before his Detroit contract expired, the Leafs must surrendered one third-round draft pick to the Wings in the next three years.
The Wings made a generous offer to Babcock – reportedly five years at $4 million per season – but everyone has their price and the opportunity, and working with a world-class GM and owner, apparently wasn’t enough to keep him from leaving for Toronto.
Babcock informed Holland of his decision around 11:15 on Wednesday morning.
“I told Mike, and Mike understood, I couldn’t justify going past five years,” Holland said. “Mike had been here for 10 years. But we’ve only won one playoff round in four years. We have bigger goals than to make the playoffs, so to wake up 2-3 years from now and if we’re not able to kind of take this program to the next level than everybody starts looking at options. Again, because I’ve been here for 18 years, Mike has been here for 10 years, there was a limit on term, and when you have a limit on term and the people you’re negotiating against don’t have a limit on term it starts to become a factor.”
Because Babcock was still under contract, the Wings agreed to let him explore the market and speak with other clubs that had shown interest in him. Toronto, Buffalo, San Jose and St. Louis all asked for and, received permission from Holland.
“I gave Mike an opportunity to go through a process and he chose to be somewhere else,” he said. “So my attitude as always has been I want to try and find the 23 players and the people who want to be in Detroit, so Mike made a decision that he wants to be in Toronto.”
Babcock, who had a historic run during his 10-season tenure with the Red Wings, now goes to the Leafs, who have reached the postseason just once in that time.
Under Babcock’s watch, the Red Wings went to the Stanley Cup finals twice, winning it in 2008, and were the only team to reach the playoffs every spring in a competitive salary cap era. His 458 regular-season wins is the most in franchise history, passing Hall-of-Fame coaches Jack Adams (415) and Scotty Bowman (410).
Still, the Red Wings are confident that they will have an incredible coach behind the bench as the team shoots for a 25th consecutive playoff berth next season.
“I’m not gonna interview eight and 10 people,” Holland said. “I might interview one. I might interview two or three. I’ll decide that in the next few days. … I believe we’re going to have a good head coach.”
Holland plans to meet with Blashill in the coming days, though he’s waiting to see the Griffins’ third-round series schedule before he’ll drive to Grand Rapids. The Griffins will face the winner of the Oklahoma City-Utica series which will be decided in tonight’s Game 7.
As a former assistant on Babcock’s Detroit coaching staff in 2011-12, Blashill is a top candidate whether it’s with the Wings or another NHL team. During his three seasons with the Griffins, the former college goalie who was born in Detroit, has gained a terrific reputation in the AHL. In that time he has picked up invaluable coaching experience – the Griffins have a 134-71-12-11 record under his tutelage – while helping prepare the franchise’s young talent for the rigors of the NHL.
“He’s a great coach,” Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar, who played for Blashill during the Griffins’ Calder Cup championship season. “He’s helping the team a lot. I think it’s a really similar school to what we’re doing here. It’s a similar system so guys are coming up here really ready.”
The players also like Blashill for his ability to communicate while offer constructive criticism.
“He’s a good talker. He can motivate the players,” Tatar said. “I feel like the system and how he’s willing to play with the players is really good. Players feel like they can talk to him. He’s somebody who they can trust and feel good.”
The 41-year-old Blashill would become the NHL’s youngest head coach, passing Minnesota’s Mike Yeo by 131 days.
Blashill’s patience was tested early on this season when the Griffins got off to a slow start, which included a five-game home losing streak. The Griffins turned things around with a franchise record 19-game point streak, which included a nine-game winning streak.
The ninth head coach in Grand Rapids history, Blashill has led the Griffins to the playoffs in all three seasons, and twice he guided them to a division title.
A collegiate goalie at Ferris State University, Blashill remained with the Bulldogs following his senior season, latching onto an assistant position in 1998, and after three seasons at Ferris and another six at Miami University, he took a head coaching gig with the Indiana Ice in 2008, and led them to the USHL championship in his first season.
Five years ago, Blashill returned to the CCHA as head coach at Western Michigan University, and earned national coach of the year honors from two college hockey publications for rejuvenating the Broncos, which had a losing record a season earlier. Under, Blashill, the Broncos improved to 19-13-10, finished fourth in the CCHA regular-season, but managed to reach the CCHA tournament championship game before falling to Miami.
It didn’t take long for Blashill to enjoy success after accepting the Griffins post in 2012, coaching the Wings to the NHL Prospects Tournament championship before guiding Grand Rapids to the AHL title eight months later.
“Number one, he wins,” Holland said. “Why does he win? I think a good coach, when I look at Mike Babcock and I see lots of similarities in Jeff Blashill. I want to talk to him. Making players accountable, having a tremendous work ethic, having passion, having a plan. Jeff has coached at different levels, just like Mike Babcock. … Jeff Blashill's been the same, different levels, had success. Spent time here under Mike Babcock. Spending a year kind of learning under Mike, then going down to Grand Rapids, so I think those are enough. You make people accountable, he's got a work ethic, he's got a plan, he's coached before, he's got experience, he wins.”