Should the Red Wings Let Mike Babcock Leave?

Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock

Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock has just one year remaining on his contract, and some have questioned whether he is still the right man for the job. (Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports)

One of the biggest storylines heading into the Detroit Red Wings’ 2014-15 campaign is the uncertain future of head coach Mike Babcock. Babcock has one year remaining on his current contract, and has stated he will not discuss a new deal once the regular season commences. General manager Ken Holland’s recent remarks that negotiations won’t begin in earnest until the players and coaches head to Traverse City for training camp offer a chance to examine whether re-signing Babcock is the right move, given the current state of the team.

Are Free Agents Avoiding Babcock’s Red Wings?

It’s no secret that Babcock is a tough, demanding coach — traits that can occasionally veer into stubbornness. Whispers of players’ wariness to play for him arose two years ago when the Red Wings failed to sign both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, their top targets in free agency. However, these murmurs of discontent were largely silenced after the team was able to secure the services of Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss the following summer. That silence, however, was merely the calm before the storm.

When the 2014 free agency period began on July 1, it was no secret the Red Wings were in the market for a top-four defenseman. In the weeks and months leading up to that date they had been linked to nearly every prominent defenseman on the market, including players believed to be seeking deals of at least five years like Matt Niskanen. On July 1, however, the hours crawled by and, one by one, the Red Wings’ targets spurned the team’s advances. Once again, players’ apparent lack of desire to play in Detroit became the topic of the offseason, leading to a Twitter firestorm among the fan base. One tweet in particular stuck with me.

The tweet in question belongs to Michael Petrella. Petrella is a former managing partner of The Production Line, a now defunct, but once prominent Red Wings blog, and an outspoken critic of Babcock. I’m not going to pretend that Petrella’s tweet was the first disdainful comment made about Babcock this offseason, but I do know that I thought about that tweet every now and then for the following few weeks. There it sat, in the back of my mind, until Petrella the blogger resurfaced for the first time in nearly a year by dropping a scathing truth bomb on the entirety of the Detroit media. In the piece, Petrella takes the writers covering the Red Wings to task for their refusal to even question a series of front office moves that were panned in seemingly every corner of the hockey world, save for the one those writers inhabit. The piece (published at Winging It In Motown, DetroitHockey.net, and The Malik Report) is a must-read for Red Wings fans, as well as any other sports fan with an interest in team-media relations. Additionally, Petrella’s piece provided me something I had previously lacked: his contact information.

Tenure Often Valued Above Skill

Two weeks ago, I wrote Petrella and asked how he had become such a strident critic of Babcock, and whether he thought Babcock should be the head coach of the Red Wings after this season.

Throughout his response, Petrella emphasizes his respect for Mike Babcock the hockey coach. But he also raises sharp questions regarding the Red Wings’ free agency failings:

“I think it’s worth noting right from the top that I think Mike Babcock is one of the — if not the – best coaches in the world. There’s no doubting he’s a proven winner, with a drive that’s unmatched. There’s no questioning that. The question is, ‘is he the right coach for this team right now?’ and that’s a little tougher to answer.”

And that’s where this becomes complicated. Few would take issue with the assertion that Babcock is a better coach than Jeff Blashill, Babcock’s near certain successor should he decide to leave. But the question of whether Babcock is a better fit, right now, than Blashill is a fair one. Petrella doesn’t think it beyond the realm of possibility that Babcock’s ultra-demanding ways have worn on the Red Wings’ current roster. Even more concerning to Petrella is Babcock’s insistence that the younger Red Wings “earn their spots” over veteran members of the team, even when those veterans are less productive than their younger counterparts.

 

“It’s no secret he’s […] stubborn,” Petrella writes “He’d even admit that. He’s locked into his ways (and who can blame him — he’s had success everywhere with them), but not all of those ways make sense for the Detroit Red Wings in 2014. Take, for example, his complete reluctance to play young players. He can’t be blamed for [Gustav] Nyquist’s season starting in Grand Rapids, but [Tomas] Tatar was only dressed for one of the first nine games last season, so that veteran guys could play ahead of him.”

Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock

It’s no secret that Mike Babcock is a demanding presence behind the bench. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

 

Of even greater concern is that the upcoming season’s roster doesn’t appear to be shaping up much differently. If Daniel Alfredsson were to re-sign with the Red Wings, Tomas Jurco would almost certainly be forced to begin the season in Grand Rapids. This is an especially disconcerting prospect for a promising young player who has already fallen victim to Babcock’s philosophy, having been scratched (probably wrongfully) in the playoffs last spring. Again, roster construction obviously does not fall solely on Babcock’s shoulders, but one has to wonder how many more times the team can afford to upset its young players before one or more decide they’ve had enough.

Does Babcock Push too Hard?

Beyond these admittedly subjective methods of evaluating Babcock’s current standing with the Red Wings, Petrella takes umbrage with a far more tangible matter: the annual rash of injured Red Wings. It’s an issue that has become increasingly visible over the past several seasons, and one that Petrella believes could be more easily prevented.

“It’s not really a secret that he pushes the players too hard in practice. And I know that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. When you play an 82 game (plus whatever post-season and potential exhibition) schedule, not every practice can be high-tempo. From what I’ve been told by people close to the medical team there, a great deal of the injuries are born in practice because he keeps asking for more and more. I don’t know if he’s entirely to blame in that situation — perhaps the doctors need to tell him to back off it a bit — but the injury situation hasn’t been an accident all these years in a row. The common denominator is the Red Wings.”

When I questioned whether or not he thought some of the injuries could be attributed to age or even bad luck, Petrella responded strongly and referred me to The Production Line’s extremely detailed game log chart.

Detroit Red Wings Forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Darren Helm

Pavel Datsyuk and Darren Helm both suffered from lingering groin injuries in 2013-14. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“[N]early the entire roster miss[ed] time due to injury. That’s not luck, or age, that’s poor management. The only players on the roster for half the season or more that did NOT get injured were Luke Glendening, Kyle Quincey, Brian Lashoff, and Drew Miller. Injuries like [Danny] DeKeyser’s are going to happen… — it’s bad luck that that happens more than once in a season. But TWENTY “regulars” injured in the same season. That’s a problem.”

What Happens Next?

Whether or not (and how much) you attribute the injuries to the practice regimen, there’s no denying that this has become a trend over the past three seasons. And whether or not you think Babcock should coach the Red Wings, he has proven time and again that he is one of the best coaches on the planet, as Petrella so quickly noted. But this is where everything comes back to fit: Is Mike Babcock the right coach for the Red Wings in 2014? When I pressed Petrella for an answer he was non-committal, but he did offer a prediction.

“… I think Babcock walks at the end of this season. Just a gut feeling. If he DOESN’T leave, we absolutely lose Blashill to an NHL gig. I don’t think Blashill is the better coach, but I’d really hate to lose him — particularly since he may very well be a better coach for THIS TEAM at this time… So, it may be best for all if there’s a philosophical shift, and that means Babcock leaves. “

That last part has stuck with me since our exchange. I love Babs, and have written so before. But I’ve also noted that I’m not a “blind follower of the Church of Babcock.” Until I talked to Petrella I had pretty firmly considered Blashill to be a solid backup plan to Babcock, as Blashill is a highly regarded coach and one the Red Wings will almost certainly lose to another job if Babcock re-signs. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t also wondered if Babcock’s message and methods were wearing thin on the players.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about the man who has coached Canada to the gold medal at the last two Olympic hockey tournaments. That’s not someone you generally just let walk out the door. It should be noted, however, that Blashill has coached many of these players before, and they are the next generation of Detroit Red Wings. The more I think about it, the more I can’t help but wonder if a change is best for all involved. And the more I think about it, the less nostalgia and the next generation seem able to coexist. Perhaps Coach Babcock is better suited in a place desperate for the type of culture change he could immediately provide. And perhaps the next generation of players needs the next head coach of the Red Wings in order to truly thrive.

Matthew Schultz

Matthew Schultz

Matthew Schultz is a journeyman maintenance mechanic/millwright who lives in the Milwaukee area. He has been a Red Wings fan since the team first acquired his childhood idol, Dominik Hašek, in 2001. Outside of the Red Wings, most of his sports allegiances lie in Wisconsin.
Matthew Schultz
@BabcocksFlyHair But they gonna be tired - 7 hours ago
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12 Comments

  1. There are many problems with the Red Wings right now:

    Holland: He has failed to secure the future of the team and he has only been successful by finding late round picks like Zetterberg, Datsyuk. He kept old players around like Draper, Maltby, Bertuzzi, and Samuelsson when they should have been let go much earlier. He can’t even make a surprising trade or signing in free agency. None of the fans I’ve talked to even want to see Quincey on our team anymore yet he’s back for another year. He signed useless players like Tootoo just to end up wasting that salary sticking them in Grand Rapids.

    Babcock: The team is getting much younger and rumors are Babcock is bad at dealing with young players. The team keeps getting younger and has surprising talent in Nyquist, Tatar, and Jurco, yet he is devoted to bringing back goat veterans like Clearly who have nothing left in the tank.

    In my opinion, the Red Wings need to part with Babcock and Holland to rebuild this team. Getting rid of Babcock might mean giving up our playoff streak, but if it ensures our team is successful in the future then it must be done.

  2. If Babs was such a tough nut, why would Alfredsen only want to play this season if he can do so as a Wing? Think about it.

  3. Coach Babcock is our teams coach. I can not be concerned with a coach “pushing” his players too hard-Reffereance Herb Brooks. I want young players hungry and going after a roster spot.

  4. John Van Haaren says:

    The references to hard practices appear to be focusing on an over emphasis on aerobic conditioning. It would be tough to pin any of the injuries on a player running out of gas in the third period or being too tired to avoid a hit. It is however easy to identify a lack of strength as a factor in some of the injuries. The Wings have missed the boat in regards to strength training. When was the last time you saw a Wing and said “wow, he’s really ripped”. Look at Ericsson. He’s no kid anymore. This guy should be King Kong by now. Like too many of the Wings he’s too soft. He’s never reluctant to fight but I can’t recall him administering a hard body check in a long time. I’ll bet Abbie has more hard hits than Ericsson. For years it was common knowledge that the Wings were the only team without a strength coach.Many of us saw the TV show last year when they showed a lot of the Wings in street clothes. Not one of them would cause a person to say “wow he’s a big guy. He must spend a lot of time in strength training and or lifting weights”. Last year there was a show on that showed Loui Eriksson in the locker room. He makes Jonathan Ericsson look like Beetle Bailey. For the third consecutive year the Wings lead the league in that ever important category of number times they get knocked on their ass per game. That has to stop.

    Attitude is another problem. Two years ago in the playoffs Hank gets a cheap shot from Weber. Last year Dekeyser gets speared in the groin by Lucic. This has got to stop. I don’t want to see fights but the Wings get physically abused nearly every game by bigger, stronger and meaner players. It’s a pleasure to see Tatar swing his stick near an opponents face when he keeps getting hit after the whistle. That’s a breath of fresh air compared to Hudler who walked away from so many illegal hits it was bad for morale and gave the opposition confidence they could do it time and time again to Pavel and Hank. I guess the team has a strength coach now but Babs and the strength coach need to lay down much more demanding expectations for all players not named Pavel, Zetterberg or Alfredsson. Even Kronwall would benefit from more muscle. The team can afford one small, really fast and talented guy like Tatar but everyone else needs to keep up with a league that is bigger, faster and stronger. This is a contact sport and if your plan is to avoid contact only through shifty, good skating and never dish it out then you are kidding yourself. I fear for DeKeyser. I hope someone tells him this is a mean, take no BS league. When Lucic speared him in the groin he should have retaliated with a stick in Lucic’s eye or throat. If not that, he should have hit the strength conditioning and weight lifting hard this Summer then plan on roaring after Lucic with a club the next time they meet. It’s time for several of the Wings to stand up and try to be the meanest guys in the valley.

  5. Mike is a good coach and I respect him but his message is stale. It happens to all coaches and he should move along.

  6. My question is this: If Babcock is so hard on the players, then why aren’t Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Franzen, and the remaining free-agent core of the team clown-carring out of Detroit? Why did Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler, and Todd Bertuzzi free-agent to other teams and then come back? Babcock must be doing something right by them. I think that available free-agents are avoiding the Wings because their agents are discouraging them from coming to Detroit. Player agents know that the Wings are owned by the Ilitch family, who also own the Tigers; and they assume the Red Wings will be used to finance the Tigers since the Tigers are much closer to winning titles right now; in turn, the Wings won’t help the players they represent reach their top market value, blah, blah, blah. So the agents simplify things by telling their players, “Forget the Red Wings, they’re going down the tubes because Babcock is a dungeon-master.” Always remember: Player agents work on percentage, and they’re always looking to maximize the cut they’re going to get.

    • Matthew Schultz Matthew Schultz says:

      I’m sure agents play at least some part in what’s happened the past few offseasons. But there are also guys turning down the same money, or less in Dan Boyle’s case, to go elsewhere.

  7. Come on… I can see the points Mr. Schultz is trying to make. 20 injured players is not all bad luck and hard games. Bashill is the future of the Wings. He can not be allowed to simply leave next year. But, Babs is an incredible coach and I also believe the Wings would not have made the playoffs last year without him. There are many pro’s and con’s on both sides.

    As for letting Ken Holland go because he hasn’t done anything in 8 years… where do you think all these kids come from. How do the awesome players in GR get there? Ken Holland. You think Ken is just sitting in his office and these kids just magically appear? Mr. Holland runs his scouts ragged looking for these guys. You are upset because he couldn’t lure, at best, 2nd line defensemen in Detroit, to the team? Maybe some deeper thought should be attempted before calling for his resignation.

    • Matthew Schultz Matthew Schultz says:

      Solid insight. The reason I didn’t take a particularly strong stand either way is because I’m really not sure what should be done. I thought Petrella made some interesting arguments and he forced me to reevaluate my position. I just don’t think this is as cut and dry as some seem to think.

      In regards to Ken Holland, I think there is something to be said about Jim Nill, Steve Yzerman, and the current levels of success they are enjoying. That said, I haven’t given up on Holland, and I’ve long been an apologist of his. But there is no defense for a few of the moves made this summer.

  8. While players may not be bending over to play for Babcock, they are likely even more hesitant to go play for a team on the obvious decline. Babcock might wind up being the “scapegoat”, but winning and money seem to rule most player decisions.

  9. larry baleja says:

    give mike his contract he is a good coach if he was not the coach last year the red wings don’t make the playoffs they had a lot of players hurt i would not sign ken holland he has done nothing for the last 8 years

  10. If you haven’t got the stuffins to play for Babcock, then you probably should not be in hockey at least not in Detroit. Only tough, team oriented, hard working players need to report to the Red Wing’s training camp.

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