The biggest name of the July 2015 UFA class might not be a player.
Mike Babcock enters the final year of his deal with the Detroit Red Wings, and the two-time Olympic champion head coach has some decisions to make.
Whether that decision is made in the next few weeks or after the season remains to be seen.
Babcock told Detroit media Wednesday that he’s either going to get something done with the Wings before the regular season starts, or he’s going to wait until after the season to figure things out.
Wings general manager Ken Holland is on the same page, agreeing that this isn't something that needs to be a focal point throughout the season. So they’ll talk this month about a contract and, if nothing gets done, reconvene after the season.
"At the end of the day, that makes the most sense," Holland told ESPN.com Thursday morning. "Our team doesn't need an everyday Mike Babcock watch all year long. We are going to talk in September, and we'll see where we go."
On his decision to shelve contract talks once the season begins, Babcock said it’s the only way to go:
"One hundred percent, because the players deserve my total attention and commitment to winning hockey games and not talking about contracts," Babcock told ESPN.com Thursday afternoon. "Ken Holland and I have a great relationship. I have a great owner. I like Detroit. I have no concern at all with my situation. We’ll find a way to get a deal worked out. But it’s not like I’m in any rush. If it happens, it happens, if not, we’ll get it done at the end of the year."
Holland and Babcock have a terrific working relationship. Sure, they push each other, but that’s what gets the best out of each other. There’s huge respect between the two successful hockey men, and I don't think there will be sour grapes no matter how this plays out.
Babcock, considered by many the best coach in the NHL, could take on a unique position. Very rarely does a coach puts himself on the market on purpose. Given the job security of an NHL coach and the fact there’s only 30 jobs, most coaches always want to extend with their current team; hitting free agency on purpose just rarely happens in their field.
And it may be that Babcock stays in Detroit. But there’s also a chance the coach with a Stanley Cup ring, two Olympic gold medals, a world junior title and an IIHF world men’s title puts himself out there next summer.
"The guy’s got an opportunity of a lifetime,” Holland said. "He’s an unrestricted free agent. He’s 52 years of age. His stock isn't going to get any higher. He’s coming off his second Olympic gold. He was finalist for coach of the year. People feel the job he did last year with our team was as good as he’s done here in a number of years."
So yes, Holland gets it. They’ll talk contract this month, perhaps get something done, but, if not, both men are secure enough in their relationship that they can pick up that conversation again after the season.
If high-profile teams such as Toronto and Pittsburgh struggle this season, you better believe the Babcock talk will intensify. Unfortunately for the Wings, it’s going to be a storyline all year long unless he signs an extension before the season, because you know his name will be the first to pop up in the NHL markets where things are going poorly.
Plan B for the Red Wings, should Babcock leave next summer, is potentially their AHL head coach Jeff Blashill. Or at least that’s one of the options. Other NHL teams contacted Detroit about wanting to talk to Blashill this summer, and the answer was, "No," according to sources. The belief here is that Blashill got a raise to stay on in Grand Rapids for at least one more year while the Wings figure out what they’re doing with their head coach at the NHL level. I don’t believe there have been any promises made to Blashill other than he would be a strong candidate for the NHL job. If Babcock signs an extension, then you have to believe the Wings would allow other NHL teams to talk to Blashill next summer.
AND WHAT ABOUT ALFIE?
Veteran winger Daniel Alfredsson is skating with the Red Wings regulars in Detroit. He’s still an unrestricted free agent and undecided about his future. This was the plan he agreed upon with Holland in late June.
"I said to Alfie: `I’ll do whatever I do on July 1, you train all summer like you’re going to play, get to Detroit in early September, skate every day for a couple of weeks and then right before camp, let’s see where you’re at,'" Holland said.
"If he’s healthy and wants to play, we can then sit down and talk about a contract."
Holland spoke with Alfredsson’s agent J.P. Barry last Friday, and they both agreed to let Alfredsson skate for two weeks and then re-evaluate the situation.
Alfredsson is coming off a year in which he earned north of $5 million. The contract counted $3.5 million against the Wings' cap last season, but there are bonuses that carry over to this year’s cap. Holland did not want to get into contract speculation, but one suspects that if Alfredsson wanted to return, it would have to be at a lower rate, yet again some type of bonus-laden deal that allows Detroit to carry some of the cap hit to next season.
But again, that’s a conversation for about 10 days to 12 days from now, depending on how Alfredsson feels after skating every day with the Wings.
At issue for Alfredsson is a back injury that gave him pause late last year.
"I had some issues with my back throughout the year, but nothing serious until the end when I started getting some tingling in the nerve down the right leg," Alfredsson told Detroit reporters Wednesday. "That's what worries me more than anything."
You can read more on Alfredsson here from Ansar Khan.
My first week back on the job, and it’s interesting that both a Western Conference team executive and a Western Conference player mentioned the same team to me in separate conversations when the subject of surprise clubs came up.
"Vancouver is a better team than they were last year," the executive said a few days ago. "Until December, they were one of the top three or four teams in the conference. Willie’s a good coach. I think they're a better team."
Willie Desjardins is the new head coach in Vancouver.
"I think they’ll do better than people think," the Western Conference player said. "It wouldn’t surprise me if they made the playoffs at all."
Another surprise team?
"People may not believe this, I think Winnipeg has a pretty good foundation there, I think they may surprise people," the veteran Western Conference executive said. "They’re big, they’re fast, they’ve got some good, young defensemen."