As the Detroit Red Wings enter a disappointingly early summer, they will have quite a while to consider what moves they should make to avoid a similar fate next year.
Deciding on which players to re-sign, identifying free-agent targets and, very likely, determining which players to throw out as possible trade bait are all items on Detroit general manager Ken Holland's to-do list.
However, the No. 1 item on that list should be signing head coach Mike Babcock to a contract extension.
Ansar Khan at MLive.com recently identified this priority as well, noting both Babcock and Holland himself will be entering the final years of their respective contracts.
Red Wings Ken Holland said he'll talk extension with Mike Babcock over the summer.— Helene St. James (@HeleneStJames) April 29, 2014
Taking for granted that Holland will be extended—he’s expressed no interest in leaving the team, and the current market yields no better GM options than Holland—he should immediately table any player-related decisions and turn his full attention to wooing Mike Babcock to stay in Detroit long term.
The reasons for retaining Babcock are obvious.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock passes Jack Adams for first on Detroit's all-time wins list with victory number 414.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 9, 2014
Babcock is now the winningest coach in Detroit Red Wings history, arguably the best hockey coach on planet Earth, and he proved this season that he’s as capable of managing veteran talent as he is at motivating rookie players.
However, that Babcock’s extension should literally come before any other offseason moves the Red Wings might make may not be as obvious.
To see why this should be the case, consider some of the other needs Holland has already identified.
Acquiring a right-handed defenseman via free agency or trade could be the biggest roster decision Holland makes this summer.
Both Mike Babcock and Ken Holland talked about their desire to have a right-handed shot on the blue line next season. #RedWings— Detroit Red Wings (@DetroitRedWings) April 29, 2014
Let’s speculate that Holland’s top target is current Pittsburgh Penguins defender Matt Niskanen. At 27 years old and coming off of a career year that saw the Minnesota native amass 46 points (10 goals, 36 assists) and a team-best plus-33 rating, Niskanen may well be the hottest free-agent defenseman in this year’s market.
He will have his share of suitors—almost certainly including his current team—and will likely be looking for considerable money and term for his services.
What should be the Detroit Red Wings' top priority this summer?
As CapGeek projects Detroit’s salary-cap space to be well over $19 million this summer, money and years will not be hard things to throw at Niskanen.
However, he’d be leaving one of the best franchises in the league in Pittsburgh, so it may not be enough to convince Niskanen it’s time to pull up stakes and relocate.
However, offering both of those things along with the opportunity to play for Mike Babcock over a significant portion of the later years creates a decidedly more attractive offer.
Such would be the case with nearly any free-agent target Holland zeroes in on in the coming months.
Let’s be honest, the allure of playing for the Detroit Red Wings is just not nearly as enticing as it once was. As such, the Red Wings will need to highlight as many amenities as possible if they’re to successfully land new players.
Playing for the best coach in the NHL is certainly a value add to any contract offer.
Therefore, until Holland can secure that particular perk, he should hold off on making any large overtures for coveted free agents.
Mike Babcock says not worried about negotiating for extension, will either remain coach of Red Wings or be assistant at U of M/ Berenson— Helene St. James (@HeleneStJames) April 29, 2014
Regardless of what re-signing Babcock could mean to free-agent pitches, securing his services for the next several years will also give Detroit a ready-made edge against most competition they’ll face in coming seasons.
Parity among NHL teams is now the norm, and, even with a strong roster, Detroit won’t intimidate most teams on talent alone. However, among his NHL head coach contemporaries, Babcock has few if any peers—all things being equal, Babcock behind the bench tips the scales in Detroit’s favor.
Of course, in the end, even if Holland decides to put Babcock’s contract extension above all other priorities, it will still be Babcock’s choice to stay or go.
Over that, Holland will have no control. However, that he should put Babcock in a position to ponder that decision as soon as possible is beyond question.