Monday, May 11, 2015

Pens made right call on Babcock

Sunday, May 10, 2015, 10:06 p.m.

If Joel Quenneville or Darryl Sutter miraculously became available, we'd have a different conversation. They've each won multiple Stanley Cups in the past five years.

Mike Babcock? Good coach. Hardly a savior. The Penguins are making the right call by passing on Babcock, who is fielding inquiries as his contract nears expiration in Detroit.

“We will not be pursuing him,” general manager Jim Rutherford told the Trib's Jason Mackey on Saturday.

The Penguins need better health and a few better players, not a new coach. That's not to say I'm sold on Mike Johnston, by any means, but he gave his short-handed team its best chance to win against the New York Rangers.

The Penguins played a conservative style, designed to keep games close in hopes that one of their highly paid stars might score or set up decisive goals. Part I worked. The final three losses were by 2-1 scores.

When the Penguins were right this season, they were the best defensive team in these parts since Kevin Constantine arrived. Constantine and Michel Therrien were run out of town by those who wanted more entertainment — more wide-open hockey. Dan Bylsma was run out by those who wanted less.

You can't win unless you win it all. Johnston deserves a shot with a relatively healthy team.

To hear some tell it, Babcock would cure all that has ailed the Penguins the previous six springs. He'd be the Sherpa to lead them back to the summit. He is, after all, the “best coach in the NHL.”

Why do people say that?

Seems to me Babcock has the same problem as the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin Penguins. Namely, that he's been stuck in base camp since the 2009 Cup Final. He is 3-6 in playoff series since then. He has failed to survive the first round three of the past four years. He hasn't even finished above third in his division since 2011.

Why would Babcock be the guy to usher Crosby and Malkin through their primes when all he did with the primes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk was win a single Cup?

I would never minimize winning a Cup, but if we're looking at Babcock through the lens of “best coach in the NHL” and maximizing a top-heavy team's potential, his Detroit tenure doesn't translate to Pittsburgh.

When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, Zetterberg was 24. Datsyuk had just turned 27. The Wings put up 124 points that season only to succumb to the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers in the first round. They were the top seed again the following season and failed to make the Final.

After beating the Penguins in 2008, the Wings blew a 3-2 lead the next year, losing Game 7 at home. They haven't truly threatened since.

Babcock's Olympic success is irrelevant to this conversation, unless the Penguins show up at camp with a third line of Rick Nash, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, the way Canada did in Sochi. Maybe Babcock is great when he easily has the best team. The Penguins aren't the best team. Haven't been for a while.

Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, I suppose, could have made a run at Babcock and set some kind of NHL record — if Bylsma doesn't get hired somewhere — of paying three head coaches at once.

The reality is the Penguins need better health and a few better players. Not a new coach. Not even the great Mike Babcock.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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