Since when did Mike Babcock become the next Scotty Bowman?
There seems to be sentiment out there that Babcock, the Detroit Red Wings coach, would solve all that ails the Penguins. That belief is so strong among many in the Penguins fan base that they virtually are willing to write off next season to wait for Babcock, who has a year left on his contract and said he won’t leave Detroit until after the youngest of his three children graduates from high school next spring. That’s crazy for a couple of reasons. One, Babcock might not leave Detroit at all. And two, he’s not another Bowman, who won nine Stanley Cups as a coach and four more as an administrator. No one is, of course.
Like Babcock, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland is signed for one more season. Detroit is expected to try to do an extension with Holland this summer. He’s then expected to try to negotiate a new contract with Babcock. The team easily could offer Babcock a deal he can’t refuse.
Babcock is a really good coach, good enough to lead Canada to gold medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. He’s well-regarded across the NHL, including in Pittsburgh, where Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, in an unsolicited moment, mentioned him and the stability he has brought to the Red Wings in an interview Friday with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gene Collier after the Penguins fired general manager Ray Shero and shockingly kept coach Dan Bylsma, at least for now. Why Bylsma wasn’t let go with Shero after what team CEO and president David Morehouse “called five years of underachieving in the playoffs” is difficult to explain. But the reason certainly can’t be to keep the Penguins coaching position filled until Babcock becomes available. It’s impossible for Bylsma to keep coaching the team even if Penguins brass wanted him back, which, by all indications, it does not.
By some measurables, Bylsma has been a more successful NHL coach than Babcock. Bylsma’s regular-season winning percentage is .670, Babcock’s with Detroit, .654. Bylsma’s playoff winning percentage is .551, Babcock’s with Detroit, .557. Since 2009, when Bylsma’s Penguins beat Babcock’s Red Wings to win the Cup in seven games, the “underachieving” Penguins have gone 4-5 in postseason series, the Red Wings, 3-5. The Red Wings won the Cup in 2008 under Babcock, beating Michel Therrien’s Penguins in six games.
Many will say not to blame Babcock for the Red Wings coming up short the past five seasons, that the team didn’t have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But a strong argument can be made that Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom (for the first three of the five seasons) provided a pretty solid foundation in Detroit. If the Penguins underachieved, didn’t the Red Wings?
One of the more compelling reasons being pushed for the Penguins trying to get Babcock at all costs is that he would make Crosby happy. Crosby scored the winning goal in overtime for Canada in the gold-medal game at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and was captain of the Canadian team at the 2014 Sochi Games. It’s believed he has a good relationship with Babcock, which could be significant because there were reports after the Penguins were eliminated by the New York Rangers in the second round of these playoffs that Crosby clashed with Bylsma late in the season. I’m not saying it isn’t true, but the problem would have had to develop quickly. Crosby ran away with the NHL scoring title this season and is a lock to be MVP when the league awards are handed out next month.
It’s hard for anyone to coach a superstar, let alone two, counting Malkin. If you don’t keep the stars happy, you are gone as coach. Maybe a poor relationship with Crosby contributed to what surely will be Bylsma’s departure from the Penguins, sooner rather than later. Lemieux, in that interview with the Post-Gazette’s Collier, questioned the Penguins’ “character.” That struck me as being a direct shot at Crosby, the team captain.
But Crosby isn’t the type of player or person who would intentionally try to get a coach fired. He is too big of a man for that, too much of a competitor. He had a lousy postseason, scoring just one goal in 13 games. But I refuse to blame a lack of effort. I do not see him as a coach-killer. Call me naive, if you must.
In any case, an organization still must do what is right for the team, not just for one or two players. That’s why it came as good news Monday when agent Pat Brisson told TSN in Canada that he wasn’t interested in becoming Penguins general manager. He represents Crosby and Malkin. Had he taken the job, it would have been a mess.
The Penguins will get their new general manager soon. He almost certainly will fire Bylsma and bring in his own man. There has been speculation that assistant coach Jacques Martin, who has plenty of NHL head coaching experience, will be promoted for one year and then step aside for Babcock. That doesn’t make much more sense than bringing back Bylsma.
The Penguins need to find what they hope is their long-term coach now and start building with him. Time is ticking on the Crosby-Malkin era. It won’t last forever. This isn’t the time to waste another year.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.