The Detroit Red Wings season ended last night in a game seven heart-breaker to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was the 24th consecutive season that the Wings have qualified for the postseason, a remarkable feat considering the Salary Cap era we’re currently in. But very little was actually focused around the team itself, because their head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t have a contract for next season. He is easily the most sought-after coach in the NHL, and is expected to become the highest paid bench boss in the league.
Mike Babcock is the kind of coach who commands a room. He has a enormous amount of respect from players because of both his reputation and his demeanor. He brings a style that’s strict and disciplined, but not one that alienates his players. Guys want to play for him. There is a lot to like about what Babcock brings to the table. He has the experience and he knows how to coach in every situation. Everyone knows that wherever he goes, players are going to buy into his system, because hey, he’s Mike Babcock. But the attention that he’s getting, the way fans are drooling over the prospect of him coaching their team, you would think it was Scotty Bowman who was available.
Babcock is a Winner
Babcock has a sparkling resume, there is no doubt about that. As a coach he has won World Junior gold (1997), World Championship Gold (2004), Olympic Gold (2010 and 2014) and a Stanley Cup (2008). Since becoming an NHL head coach in 2002, he has made the playoffs in 11 out of 12 seasons, 10 of which were in Detroit. He led the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup final in his first season behind the bench, thought they ultimately fell short to the New Jersey Devils. Babcock’s Ducks missed the postseason the following year. Moving to the Red Wings organization was clearly the right move, as his teams won their division five times, and made two Stanley Cup finals, winning once.
The Red Wings have long been a model franchise in the NHL, and it essentially starts at the top with their management. Before the salary cap was implemented, Detroit boasted some powerhouse teams. Why? Because guys wanted to play there. Detroit had a reputation of taking care of their players, treating them right and creating an environment was positive. Ken Holland deserves a ton of credit for the work he’s done as a General Manager. And I’m not even talking about how he groomed guys like Steve Yzerman and Jim Nill to be good GM’s in their own right. Holland was the architect of many a successful team. Under his watch, the Red Wings have won three Stanley Cup Championships and four President’s Trophies.
And let’s not forget the Red Wings scouting system. The way they are able to find players that aren’t on anyone else’s radar is remarkable. Pavel Datsyuk was drafted 171st overall. Henrik Zetterberg went 210th overall. Nicklas Lidstrom was taken 53rd overall. The scouts of the Red Wings are able to discover guys, they’re able to suss out talent, they see things other scouts don’t see. They’re committing to finding the right kinds of players that fit the team’s style. But, as much as we can glorify this team from top to bottom, you can’t help but notice their recent track record in the playoffs.
The Red Wings have Fallen Short
Mike Babcock’s Red Wings have not advanced past the second round since losing in the Cup final to the Penguins in 2009. Since Babcock took over behind the bench, they have reached the Conference Finals three times. Babcock has one Stanley Cup ring. So do Dan Bylsma, Randy Carlyle, and John Tortorella, all of whom are currently out of work. You can argue that Joel Quenneville has seen more NHL success behind the bench. He has a similar rate of winning in terms of playoff rounds to Babcock but has two Stanley Cup championships, as does Darryl Sutter.
So the question remains, is Mike Babcock the reason the Red Wings make the playoffs every season, or does Mike Babcock make the playoffs every season because the Red Wings are a very well-run organization? Perhaps it’s a mix of both. And perhaps the real test will come next season if Babcock is not behind the Detroit bench. Should their playoff streak come to an end, does that mean it was all Mike Babcock, or are they just not good enough? There are many people who would argue that Babcock is best coach in the NHL, but if you look at stats, is he really the best?
Who is the Best Coach?
Should guys like Barry Trotz (while in Nashville) and Dave Tippett, who had marginal talent to work with but still got results, be spoken of in the same breath? Or not quite because they don’t have a ring. What about Todd McLellan, Babcock’s protege, who won a President’s trophy, three division titles and made the Conference Finals twice with the San Jose Sharks? Is he as good a coach as Mike Babcock? Brent Sutter won Gold twice with Canada’s World Junior team and he isn’t even employed in the NHL. Obviously, Mike Babcock has a presence that many other coaches don’t have, hence why even championship success doesn’t guarantee you a job. And there’s a reason why everyone wants him to be their coach. But is the reason more perception and reputation than actual results?
Yes, Babcock has a lot of success on the international stage, but look at some of the powerhouse teams Canada has been able to skate out there, particularly in the Olympics. Can anyone honestly say that Mike Babcock was the reason they won Gold? I don’t want to take away from what he’s accomplished, because it’s a great deal. But the way that some people view him as a savior riding in on a white horse to rescue their team from the depths of irrelevance and carry them to championship glory, well I think expectations may be slightly high. Mike Babcock is a great coach, but, dare I say, might the perception of him be a tiny bit overrated?