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james mirtle

This was the Detroit Red Wings third first-round exit in the past four years.

It might not be their last big loss this season.

It's no secret there's a coaching arms race heating up in the NHL this spring. Teams are firing guys left and right, and others are leaving their options open. We don't know who will be coaching (for sure) nearly one-third of the league's teams – Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Edmonton, New Jersey, Philadelphia, San Jose, St. Louis and Toronto – next season.

More clubs could unexpectedly join that group if they want to get in on the musical chairs.

The man at the front of the line is Mike Babcock. He's his own line. Even with the recent playoff exits – and no trips past the second round since losing in the 2009 finals – the Wings long-time coach has a golden reputation.

No pun intended, given his two wins at the Olympics.

He has won a lot of NHL games, with a .627 points percentage that is fifth among coaches with 500-plus games all-time, and that buys you opportunity.

Now a free agent, he can go wherever he wants. He can make what he wants, too, setting a new record for a bench boss's salary with something in the $5-million-a-season range.

His choices are interesting.

The Wings outplayed Tampa Bay in Wednesday's Game 7 and deserved to win. But when you score only 13 non-empty-net goals in a series and wind up in what became a one-goal Game 7 (with an empty-netter), you flirt with disaster. And disaster struck.

Perhaps that was why Babcock sounded so downcast when he spoke with reporters afterward, but his words were rather ominous for those in Detroit.

He mused openly about the Wings present roster, especially as their stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg enter the NHL's equivalent of old age. He pondered why they weren't the favourites anymore.

He seems to wonder if they're going to be in the near future.

"Our team is not as good as it was," he told reporters in Tampa after the loss. "We battled our butt off just to get in the playoffs … Three of our best players are 34, 35 and 37… nobody on the outside picked us to be a Stanley Cup contender."

Babcock can name his price in a lot of places. Buffalo, Edmonton, Philadelphia and Toronto especially have an endless supply of money to dump on someone they believe accelerates their path up the standings, and Babcock – for all his warts (and they exist) – certainly fits.

None of those teams are quick fixes, if being more competitive than the Wings (who have a very solid prospect pool) is what he's after.

The best bets for "win-now" scenarios would probably be Boston and St. Louis, who still have coaches in place and have been very quiet in the Babcock conversation during the year. The Bruins certainly have the financial means and an opening in the front office. The Blues have an Olympic connection, with GM Doug Armstrong part of Canada's brass.

This was Babcock's 10th season in Detroit. He started there as a green coach at the NHL level when he was only 42 years old. On Wednesday, he turned 52, and the sense is that, more than anything, he may simply want a new challenge, one that comes with more say in how the roster is assembled.

"I'm not talking about that now," was all he would offer when asked about his future, noting he'd address it at his season-ending press conference. "I'll be happy to talk about any of that crap then."

Next to Connor McDavid landing in Edmonton through the draft lottery, "that crap" has been the single biggest NHL story this season, and with the Wings out, the chatter will only heat up. Other top candidates have already been talking to teams, but there'll be a logjam as teams wait to see what Babcock decides.

Ultimately, with such a unique landscape, it'll be entirely up to what he decides is important in what could become his final destination. Babcock is stubborn and self-assured, and that confidence in his abilities means it's not a guarantee he'll want to go where there are easy answers.

With the NHL's free-agent class once again looking bone-thin, this eight- to 10-team coaching derby is likely going to be the most drama hockey fans get outside of the rest of the postseason.

Babcock being available starts it, and unless he re-ups quickly in Detroit in the coming days, it'll be an entertaining process.