Mike Babcock is switching one Original Six NHL franchise for another after being hired to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday.
The Maple Leafs announced the hiring to put to an end months of speculation about Babcock’s future with the Detroit Red Wings, where he spent the past 10 seasons and won a Stanley Cup in 2008. Babcock will be introduced at a news conference Thursday.
Though Babcock was under contract with Detroit through June 30, the Red Wings granted their coach permission to speak to other teams on May 8.
Babcock agreed to an eight-year contract that makes him the highest-paid coach in the NHL, a reported $50 million deal at an average of $6.25 million a season.
By hiring Babcock, the Leafs must send a third-round pick to Detroit as compensation.
Landing Babcock is a major coup for Brendan Shanahan, who in the past 13 months since taking over as president has fired general manager Dave Nonis, coach Randy Carlyle, interim Peter Horachek and several assistants and scouts.
“I’m proud of Shanny, I’m proud that he dreamt big,” Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment President and CEO Tim Leiweke said. “He got the big whale. …
“It should give everyone great hope about the future of this organization. Mike Babcock is a phenomenal coach, and I think we’re really lucky to get him.”
Detroit general manager Ken Holland said Babcock told him of his decision Wednesday morning.
“My offers last June were a four-year term. Again in January, it was a four-year term,” Holland said. “As we sat yesterday morning, I said, ‘Mike, the best I can do is five years.’ When you’ve been in the same city as long as I have, and as long as Mike has, you don’t get much longer term than four and five years. So I think that certainly part of the decision-making process probably for Mike was the amount of term that he could get in Toronto.”
In selecting Toronto, Babcock goes from a Red Wings franchise that has reached the playoffs for an NHL-leading 24 consecutive seasons to a team that has struggled competitively. Toronto missed the playoffs last season for the ninth time in 10 years.
The Maple Leafs have also not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, a season before the NHL expanded from its original six franchises. The Red Wings, by comparison, have won the championship four times since 1997.
The 52-year-old Babcock also coached Canada to Olympic gold medals in 2010 and ’14.
He brings stability and a high-profile face to a franchise that is on its fourth full-time coach since Paul Maurice took over in 2006.
The Maple Leafs had a vacancy after Carlyle was fired in January, and replaced on an interim basis by assistant Horachek.
Babcock’s decision comes as a slight surprise, given that he indicated last week that he hated losing and wanted to be part of a team that had an opportunity to win immediately.
The Maple Leafs have an over-priced and aging roster, and questions at goaltending. The team unraveled last season. After holding a 19-9-3 record in mid-December, Toronto closed the season going 11-35-8 to finish 15th in the 16-team Eastern Conference standings.
On the bright side, Babcock is reunited with Shanahan, who took over as the Maple Leafs president last year. Shanahan played for Babcock in Detroit.
Babcock earned $2 million per season in his previous four-year contract and the corporately owned Maple Leafs are one of the NHL’s most profitable franchises. They were last valued by Forbes as being worth an NHL-high $1.3 billion.
Babcock had not ruled out staying in Detroit, and also interviewed with the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres had held contract negotiations with Babcock as recently as Tuesday, but were informed they were out of the running on Wednesday, two people familiar with the discussions told The Associated Press.
The two people spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Sabres have not publicly discussed their coaching search to replace Ted Nolan, who was fired a day after the end of the season.
The Sabres must now turn to Plan B. Potential candidates include former NHL coaches Dan Bylsma and Paul MacLean, and minor-league coach Luke Richardson.
The Red Wings, who were eliminated by Tampa Bay in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series last month, have an obvious coaching candidate in their system. Jeff Blashill is coach of Detroit’s minor-league affiliate in Grand Rapids and was honored as the American Hockey League’s outstanding coach in 2013-14.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Holland said Blashill Was “certainly a leading candidate” to replace Babcock.
“I haven’t made a final decision,” he continued. “I need to spend some time with him before I know anything. Hopefully I can get over (to Grand Rapids) sometime next week and spend a little time with Blash.”
Blashill’s Grand Rapids Griffins are preparing for the AHL Western Conference Finals. Around noon Wednesday, the head coach told 24 Hour News 8 he had not yet talked to Holland or anyone else in the Red Wings organization about the job. He also said he didn’t believe it was a distraction to his team.
“I haven’t heard or seen anybody chatting about it,” Blashill said. “I’m sure guys are aware of it, but I don’t consider it a distraction. They know my sole focus is on trying to help us be prepared to go into round three (of the Calder Cup Playoffs) and try and win Game 1. They know that’s what my sole focus is. They know me well enough.”
Holland also indicated he may be interested in Grand Haven native Dan Bylsma, a former coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, calling his a “good name.”
“I haven’t really had much time to put some names together, but my list is going to be a short list. It’s going to be two or three names,” Holland said.
Babcock began his NHL head coaching career with a flourish in 2002-03, when he took Anaheim to within one win of a Stanley Cup title. He began coaching the Red Wings after the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Babcock was the first coach to win at least 50 games in each of his first four seasons with an NHL team — a deceiving stat in the shootout era but an impressive one nonetheless — when he did it with the Red Wings. With 458 wins for Detroit, he ranks No. 1 on the franchise’s career list, ahead of luminaries like Scotty Bowman and Jack Adams.
AP Sports Writer Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this report. 24 Hour News 8’s Larry Figurski also contributed to this report.