After losing in Game 7, is the Mike Babcock era over in Detroit? (USATSI)
After losing in Game 7, is the Mike Babcock era over in Detroit? (USATSI)

Just as soon as Anton Stralman’s desperate clearing attempt ended up in the empty Detroit Red Wings’ net, the feeling of finality had to set in for both the team and its many fans. It signified the end of another season in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it may have also signified the end of an era.

There is a chance that Mike Babcock just coached his last game behind the Red Wings’ bench. His contract expires this summer and there are several openings throughout the NHL with varying degrees of attractiveness. Also, if Babcock does become available, perhaps a few more positions would open up in hopes of bringing him in.

In a season with several strong candidates for head coaching jobs available, Babcock is the biggest fish. He knows it, too. This whole situation could have been avoided last summer, but Babcock and general manager Ken Holland never were able to come to an agreement on an extension. The only thing they did agree on was that if it didn’t get done last offseason, they weren’t going to deal with it during the season.

Now the Red Wings are done early once again after falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of their first-round series. Though the team has managed to run its streak of consecutive playoff appearances to a record 24, Detroit hasn’t gotten past the second round since its loss in the Stanley Cup Final in 2009.

As Babcock spoke in his postgame press conference following the loss, he would not address his future, but at times was blunt in his assessment of the current team compared to some of his other rosters while in Detroit.

“Our team is not as good as it was,” Babcock said in reference to the team’s recent postseason struggles compared to its past success. “It's very evident. We battled our butt off just to get in the playoffs.”

Babcock also was able to look across at the Lightning and see the differences between that team and his own, which led to some interesting comments about where the Red Wings are at this point.

“You are what you are,” he said. “[Tampa Bay] had a young team that have been around long enough to rebuild it. They've got young players at key positions. Three of our best players are 34, 35, 37. Any way you look at it, we're a team that has changed a ton of players and added a lot of youth to our lineup, but nobody on the outside picked us to be a Stanley Cup contender.”

Babcock sounded like a coach lamenting the fact that his team’s Stanley Cup window is no longer open and that it may be a few years away from opening again. It could have just been the sting of defeat after a hard-fought series, but there was definitely plenty of truth in his words as well.

Those words are not going to be comforting to Red Wings fans, either.

After 786 games behind the Red Wings’ bench during the regular season and an additional 123 over the playoffs, this could be the end of the Babcock era in Detroit. He’s compiled 458 wins over 10 years at the helm and has a Stanley Cup, which came in 2008. He also led Canada to each of its last two gold medals at the Winter Olympics. Despite never earning the Jack Adams Award as the league’s coach of the year, he remains among the most respected bench bosses in all the NHL.

Babcock has stated in the past that he likes Detroit and the organization, but that the deal didn't get done last summer shows that he was at least willing to keep his options open. There’s no harm in dipping his toe into the market and seeing what he could fetch.

There’s a good possibility that Babcock would be on the receiving end of an offer that would make him the highest-paid coach in NHL history.

And really, why wouldn’t that be the case? Given the level of success Babcock has enjoyed and his lofty status among the NHL elite, the expectation should be pretty high in terms of salary for the head coach. That’s especially true in the face of an incredibly weak free agent market among players.

Instead of spending that $5 million on the goaltender the team is inevitably going to replace with a late-season callup from the American Hockey League, why wouldn't an agressive GM go after a head coach that will be around for multiple years and potentially be part of building a winning organization? Besides, think of the cap savings.

There are few coaches in the history of the game that have had the kind of leverage Babcock does at this point in his career. He could easily stay in Detroit as you’d have to expect deep-pocketed owner Mike Ilitch will do whatever he can to keep those loyal to the organization together. He’s got a new arena to open in two years after all.

But then that comes back to where Babcock sees this roster. He knows that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg aren’t going to be able to play forever. Datsyuk only has two years left on his current contract anyway. There’s a chance that young players like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Danny DeKeyser, Riley Sheahan and prospects Teemu Pulkkinen, Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin all round out into high-end NHL players capable of rebuilding the core, but Babcock may not want to wait around for that.

Here’s the problem with that, though. Most of the teams with vacancies currently are probably no closer to the Red Wings to being a legitimate contender. It may take a currently occupied job with a more established team to successfully woo Babcock in that instance.

Though the Toronto Maple Leafs could throw buckets of money at Babcock, they offer a roster that is in serious need of rebuilding and could be a very long way away. The San Jose Sharks are in a very similar boat organizationally as Detroit. The Philadelphia Flyers need some massive repairs on defense, but have a pretty solid core among forwards. The St. Louis Blues could be in the market for a new coach soon and seem to have the pieces in place to make a run. The Edmonton Oilers will have Connor McDavid and may be looking for a marquee coach to pilot the club into the new era. Maybe the Pittsburgh Penguins pull the plug on Mike Johnston after the recent vote of confidence simply because there was a better option out there (with all due respect to Johnston).

Anything can happen at this point, which is why Babcock’s contract status could remain in flux for the next few months as he ponders his future and weighs his options.

No matter where he ends up, even if he stays in Detroit, Babcock is likely going to command a massive salary unlike any previously seen in the NHL. Based on Babcock’s words, though, money alone can’t buy him happiness. Winning might. Now he has to decide what team will give him the best chance to do just that.