The second-best coach in Red Wings history has just pulled off a sleight of hand of epic proportions. Henning, Blackstone, Blaine, Copperfield—they got nothing on Mike Babcock.
It was a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of thing. Heck, even if you propped your eyelids open with toothpicks, you still would have missed it. That’s how tricky Babcock is.
The second-best coach in Red Wings history, trailing only that enigmatic savant, Scotty Bowman, guided the franchise through a transition period and I bet you didn’t even know that until the very moment you’re reading this.
But more on that in a bit.
This week the Red Wings announced they have signed Babcock, their coach since 2005, to a four-year extension, running through the 2014-15 season.
The news was greeted with the customary yawns and shrugs befitting an organization that never seems to make the wrong move. The Red Wings could have announced they’d signed Babcock to a 10-year extension and no one would have said boo.
It was like peanut butter announcing it was renewing its contract with jelly for another four years.
The Red Wings were so bad for so long—from the late-1960s through the mid-1980s—that it’s easy to forget that, prior to Bowman and Babcock, not every man who stood behind the Detroit bench was a shmuck.
There was Jack Adams, for whom the league’s Coach of the Year Award is named. Jack’s Red Wings teams were almost always solid, sometimes spectacular, when he coached them from 1927 thru 1947, winning three Stanley Cups along the way.
There was Tommy Ivan, who won Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in 1950, ’52, and ’54.
And there was Jimmy Skinner, a Cup winner in 1955 in Detroit.
But Babcock has already, in just his sixth season as Red Wings coach, leap-frogged his way past Messrs. Adams, et al to be nipping on Bowman’s heels in terms of greatness in the Motor City.
A typical Red Wings season under Babcock, averaging his five in Detroit, has been 52 wins, 20 losses, and 10 overtime/shootout losses. That’s the mean. That’s greatness.
All that, plus a couple Presidents’ Trophies for the league’s best regular season record, a Stanley Cup, and a near-miss. Oh, and a 100-point season last year, when injuries ravaged his team—plus a first round playoff victory.
But it’s Babcock’s aforementioned sleight of hand that gets me.
Did you know that the Red Wings underwent a transition period from 2005 to 2007?
You’re excused. No one else noticed it, either. It’s another tribute to Babcock’s greatness as an NHL coach.
It may be hard for you to believe, but the Red Wings were a team at a crossroads when Babcock joined them in 2005, on the heels of the infamous labor lockout, which canceled the entire 2004-05 season.
It was barely perceptible, but it was there.
The Red Wings were coming off two seasons of being coached by Dave Lewis, Bowman’s longtime assistant who was—wrongly, I believe—promoted after Scotty retired in the glow of the 2002 Cup.
Lewis’s teams had great regular seasons—continuing tradition—but were largely busts in the playoffs. The 2003 team was swept by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the first round, and the 2004 squad didn’t make it past the second round.
The coach of the Mighty Ducks in 2003—a team that made it all the way to the Cup Finals as the league’s Cinderella story—was none other than Mike Babcock.
Lewis was canned during the lockout, and Red Wings GM Ken Holland wanted Babcock and no one else. Holland remembered what Babcock’s ’03 team did to the Red Wings, and he also knew what Babcock had done previously as coach of a minor league team in Cincinnati that was partly affiliated with the Red Wings.
So Babcock came to town with his scarred rock jaw and his intense stare and clothes that needed pressing more than a Panini sandwich and proceeded to rub his veteran players the wrong way.
But it didn’t take him long to learn to back off and realize that his was a locker room full of Hall of Famers, not AHLers.
Ahh, but where was the transition, you might ask?
Within his first two seasons at the helm, Babcock lost veterans Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan—for starters. At the same time, he was cultivating and blending in younger players like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen.
Babcock’s starting goalie when he arrived in Detroit was the fragile Manny Legace.
Yet the Red Wings kept winning.
There was a disappointing first round playoff loss in 2006 to the Edmonton Oilers, who would go on to play in the Finals. But after that, Babcock’s teams went to three straight Conference Finals, winning two of them.
You missed the transition again, didn’t you?
OK, stay with me here.
Babcock took over a Red Wings team coming off two straight disappointing playoffs, a lockout, and that was about to see its roster evolve, with legendary players leaving and bright new stars entering.
All that, and Babcock had to adapt his fiery, oppressive coaching style to suit his plethora of veteran players.
Yet the Red Wings kept winning, kept going to the Final Four, and won a Stanley Cup and damn near a second.
So you can see why the news of Babcock’s four-year contract extension was hardly Earth-shattering. The better question isn’t why the Red Wings extended him; it’s, why didn’t they extend him longer?
The second-best coach in Red Wings history has just been given four more years in Detroit—years during which he just might do the ultimate frog leap: pass Scotty Bowman in terms of Hockeytown coaching greatness.
Who knows what that tricky Mike Babcock has up his sleeve, eh?