Mike Babcock in 2009
If they were friends on Facebook, Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings just changed their relationship status to “It’s complicated.” Babcock, regarded in some circles as the best coach in the NHL, was given permission by general manager Ken Holland to talk to other teams and gauge the level of interest in his services.
The Penguins need to be in the mix of teams seriously inquiring about his services. If the price is right -- and just about any price he names should be -- and the interest from both parties is mutual, the Penguins should pull the trigger and make the hire.
Yes, that means firing Mike Johnston after one year on the job. Yes, that means giving Johnston the boot after a season where he coached through a ridiculous injury bug as well as his own general manager’s mismanagement of the salary cap down the stretch. Yes, it means David Morehouse going back on his word that Johnston would coach the team next year. It isn’t fair to Johnston, not one bit, but it would be good, if expensive, business.
Babcock isn’t a savior. It’s fair to say that no coach is. The players still have to play. But from my vantage point, he is the best bench boss in the sport. That is all that really matters. Johnston, for all the good work he did this year, is still a guy who just finished his first season as an NHL head coach. For what it’s worth, Babcock’s first season as a head coach ended in a trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 2003 with the Ducks.
There are other landing spots that could be enticing to Babcock. He could choose to join the Oilers and Connor McDavid, or he could go to Philadelphia, a team sure to make a big push. He could also choose to enter the pressure cooker that is Toronto and coach the Maple Leafs. There are some upsides to each choice, but no other destination offers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, both still in the prime years of their respective careers.
Sure, the Penguins have issues. Their situation on defense will be tenuous and always one injury to Kris Letang or Olli Maatta away from being a serious problem. They are in salary cap hell. They lack depth, and thanks to Ray Shero’s penchant for drafting defensemen, they lack cheap, talented forwards to pair with their franchise centers. The Pens have also traded away plenty of draft picks in an understandable effort to go all-in for the Stanley Cup every season.
Babcock is the right guy to navigate those choppy waters. Yes, he hasn’t been back to the Cup finals since the Penguins defeated his Red Wings in 2009. Yes, his team has not advanced past the second round during that time, either. Seeing that doesn’t cause me to view him as overrated, as some do. I see a guy who has managed to keep the Wings more than competitive while weathering the retirement of one of the game’s all-time great defensemen in Nicklas Lidstrom. I see someone who has retooled his team around his two aging stars, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, 34 and 36, respectively. I see a coach who could do serious damage with Crosby and Malkin.
Crosby loved playing for Babcock during the Olympics, and while that probably was due in part to the fact that he was playing with all-world linemates, it should not be ignored when tallying up the positives in Babcock’s ledger. What’s more, Babcock not only won the gold medal in 2010 when the games were in Vancouver, but also in 2014 at the Sochi games. Given that Canada was a heavy favorite entering both Olympics, the pressure was on full blast, and Babcock handled it with aplomb.
The pressure to win in Pittsburgh is constant. Babcock can handle it. Johnston deserves better, but that’s life.
Babcock is a game-changer of a head coach, and if he is there for the taking, the Penguins would be wise to do everything in their power to get him.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of "The Starkey & Mueller Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
More about Chris Mueller Column
- ARTICLE: Mueller: Rest is best for Andrew McCutchen
- ARTICLE: Mueller: Don't want Floyd Mayweather to win? Don't buy the fight.
- ARTICLE: Mueller: Questions, but not faith, abound in Penguins' off-season
- ARTICLE: Mueller: Marte needs to be a party to Pirates' offense
More about Penguins Hockey
- ARTICLE: Mehno: It's too early to grade Steelers' of any team's draft
- ARTICLE: GM Rutherford's state of Penguins part disappointment, part hope
- ARTICLE: Penguins GM Rutherford defends his deadline deals
- ARTICLE: Insider: Pens don't deny role of injuries in early playoff exit