Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.
So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?
After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.
What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?
How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”
According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.
You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.
Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.
So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.
The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.
He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”
It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.
“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”
The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.
Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.
“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.
“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”
Give ‘em hell, Mike.
Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.
Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?
It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.
“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”
I’ll go one step further than Babcock.
If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.
There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.
It’s a new game these days, anyway.
In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.
Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.
The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.
The Red Wings are moving along with the times.
Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.
Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.
Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.
Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.
Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.
In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.
The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.
But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.
Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.
The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.
Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.
The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.
“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”
The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.