Mike Babcock has an eight-year contract from Toronto. ©2015, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Mike Babcock picks Leafs over Sabres, lands massive contract

BUFFALO – As decision day approached, it appeared Mike Babcock, the prized free agent coach, had whittled his choices down to two teams: Detroit, where he had spent 10 seasons guiding the Red Wings, or the rebuilding Sabres, a team stocked with young talent and willing to break to the bank.

By most accounts, the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of about five teams Babcock had spoken to, had fallen out of the picture.

But the Leafs, the Sabres’ closest and fiercest rival, stunned the hockey world Wednesday afternoon, signing Babcock to an eight-year deal worth as much as $50 million, according to Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman. The Sabres had made Babcock a similar offer, according to reports.

Losing Babcock to any team would’ve been tough; losing him to the hated Leafs might sting for a long time. Just imagine the reaction when Babcock steps behind the bench a few times next season at the First Niagara Center.

It was no secret Babcock wanted to set a new standard for coaches’ salaries, a goal he certainly accomplished. Welcome to the era of the $4 or $5 million hockey coach. Only 41 players made more last season than the $6.25 million Babcock’s deal averages yearly, according to NHLNumbers.com. He earned $2 million last season and was offered $20 over five years by the Red Wings, according to MLive.com.

For one of the few times since he bought the team in 2011, Sabres owner Terry Pegula didn’t get what he wanted. Pegula and his wife, Kim, whose hiring of Rex Ryan to coach the Bills has been a hit, wooed Babcock when he visited Buffalo on May 10. The Sabres, according to multiple reports, felt confident earlier this week they had landed their man and were angry Babcock picked Toronto.

What do they do now?

The Sabres have stayed tight-lipped about their search to replace Ted Nolan, even refusing to hold an end-of-season news conference. It’s believed they could be interested in Luke Richardson, a coaching prospect Sabres general manager Tim Murray hired to lead the AHL Binghamton Senators during his Ottawa days. Dan Bylsma, who coached the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup, is also available.

Despite consecutive 30th-place finishes, the Sabres still have an attractive opening. They have arguably the NHL’s best prospect pool and plan to draft Jack Eichel, a potentially franchise-changing talent, second overall next month.

Still, it seemed like Babcock, who has missed the playoffs only once in his NHL career, way back in 2004, might be an odd fit in Buffalo. He coached veteran teams in Detroit. The Sabres could be at least a year away from contending for a playoff spot.

The Leafs, meanwhile, have recently gutted the team and front office under new president Brendan Shanahan, one of Babcock’s former players. They’re just beginning a long rebuild. They have few notable prospects and could be years away from contending in the competitive Atlantic Division, where the Sabres and Red Wings also play.

But imagine if Babcock, who’s led Canada to two Olympic gold medals, can someday coach one of hockey’s fabled franchises to its first Stanley Cup since 1967. He would become an icon and a legend in Toronto, the so-called center of the hockey universe.

Babcock, who won the Stanley Cup in 2008, will reportedly also have some say in personnel decisions. The Leafs still haven’t hired a GM to replace Dave Nonis.

Red Wings GM Ken Holland expected a team would pony up for the 52-year-old Babcock.

“I’ve been in this sport a long time,” Holland told reporters in Detroit. “One of the things I said to Mike, ‘Anytime you’re an unrestricted free agent in the prime of your career there’s going to be opportunities that will stagger you.’ I use the word stagger because I’m aware of what the industry pays, but in order to get people you have to go above and beyond the industry standards to try and get somebody to come to you.

“I’m happy for Mike. Mike gave Red Wing fans and our organization 10 fabulous years. I loved working with Mike.”

The Red Wings could promote coach Jeff Blashill from their AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, soon.

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