How Pavel Datsyuk’s departure could affect the Red Wings

The time is nearing when Pavel Datsyuk will no longer be a Detroit Red Wing, this much is certain. With a year left on his contract after this year at $7.5 million, the 37-year old is much closer to being at his end of the career than the start. 

Though he’s still an exceptional player (putting up 48 points in 63 games this year, and first in the league in CF% amongst non-LA Kings forwards), Datsyuk may be in fact leaving the NHL as early as next season to return to play in his native Russia, as reported by Elliotte Friedman. Family reasons were cited as a major contributing factor for him wanting to leave. It’s hard to fault a guy who’s given his heart and soul to the organization as much as Datsyuk has for wanting to leave on his own terms, but the realities of him actually going are a little scary, for a number of reasons.

For what it’s worth, Wings GM Ken Holland denied the reports of Datsyuk leaving the team. On that same line of thought, it’s not uncommon for a team executive to deny any report of a player leaving his team for whatever reason. 

Datsyuk’s on-ice performance is about as close as you get to a true “irreplaceable” player in today’s NHL. While there’s a small number of guys who can be more effective offensively than Datsyuk, (he’s 8th in career points per game amongst active players since he came into the league), there’s pretty no one who’s been able to put up his kind of numbers while also being amongst the league’s top defensive forwards every year as well. He’s currently 4th in the NHL in Corsi Rel % amongst centers, at an age when many players barely crack the fourth line. Guys like Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews have been exceptional as well at both ends, but both players fall behind #13 in terms of offensive production. As everyone knows, he has always been and continues to be a very effective player.

As he’s still on an NHL deal, there are only two realistic options as to how Datsyuk could end up playing in Russia.

Option 1: Flat out retirement

This would be, for the Red Wings’ sake, pretty terrible. Losing a franchise player is bad enough, but it’s a double-whammy that the Wings would still be on the hook for his cap hit next year, as Datsyuk’s in the 35+ age range, as per the current CBA. As such, they’d still be required to have his cap hit, without actually having to pay his salary.

On the flip side, it’s only for one season. It would set back the Wings’ future a little bit if they still had the cap hit of Datsyuk without the positive of getting him in the lineup, but at the end of the day, they’re going to be without him in the very near future. Having a player’s cap hit for one year without them playing isn’t a long-term anchor, it’s mostly just a really unfortunate short-term issue. It would really suck next year for the Wings to lose Datsyuk in this manner, but it’s not too much different for 2017-18 than if he were just to leave after his contract actually expired.

Option 2: Trade and retirement 

Another option would be to trade Datsyuk away, and have him retire with his new team.

Under the current CBA, the scenario would play out as follows:

  • A team could trade a draft pick or a player for Datsyuk
  • Datsyuk retires as a member of this new team
  • The new team would pay $0 in actual money while having a $7.5 million cap hit
  • Detroit has a $2 million cap recapture penalty for avoiding the cap hit of Datsyuk, as his “real salary” heading into 2016/17 is $5.5 million

The only reason this scenario would work out well would a low-budget team looking to reach the cap floor, the lowest amount of salary/ cap hits that they’re required to have.  

The NHL, for obvious reasons, doesn’t really like when teams pull these kinds of shenanigans, which would be the reason for the cap recapture penalty being levied against the Wings. However, this could be the best outcome for Detroit if they can find a suitable taker as it would get them off the hook from an additional $5.5 million cap hit they’d have if Datsyuk retired a Red Wing.

Who fills the hole created by Datsyuk leaving?

There are lots of good things about getting $5.5 million in cap space for a season, even if it means trading a franchise legend so he has to retire with another team. Eventually, the Wings are going to lose Datsyuk, and if he is insistent on going to the KHL, this could the best option. Budgeted properly, the $2 million cap penalty is a nuisance, but it’s still doable to construct a solid team around these parameters.

Are the Wings winning another Stanley Cup with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg as core pieces? Probably not, to be brutally honest. The organization has to come to terms with this reality eventually and begin planning for the future. There are a few available options that could sit nicely with the hole created by Datsyuk’s departure. While the Wings could look at the “draft and develop” model that led to his career in the first place, here’s a few pending UFA centers that make sense for the Wings to target.

Steven Stamkos. Whether they’re public about it or not, Stamkos is on 30 teams’ radar this offseason. Regardless of if a team is directly looking to sign him or not, there will be a few moves made as a ripple effect of him being available. It’s not a stretch to say he could be the biggest free agent to hit the market in any of the four major sports since Lebron James (either time). You won’t get Stamkos signed to a $5.5 million dollar deal as he could make even double that figure, but every bit of cap space you clear. If the Wings are creative enough to move around a few more assets and Stamkos is willing to come, they could potentially pull this move off. It might be a long shot, but it has to be high on the Wings priority list if there’s any reasonable possibility of it happening.  

Eric Staal. Staal could be a more realistic option, seeing as he’s a player who’s less in demand but still producing just a shade under a half-point per game this season. His cap number is a bit more up in the air, as he’s now 31 and a shell of the player he used to be, but a fresh start and some quality teammates for the former 100-point man could kickstart his career.

David Backes. Never quite an “elite” offensive producer (his career high sits at 62 points), Backes has still always been a very good player. Backes won’t be making ludicrous money, and if he does end up hitting the market, he could be a great fit.

Just a few other notable names hitting the UFA market include Jiri Hudler, Sam Gagner, and Tuomo Ruutu (not to mention Brad Richards and Darren Helm from the Wings.) A full list, via NHL Numbers, is available here. If they’re unable to land a big-name free agent, the Wings could also look to explore trading for some immediate offensive help, as losing a star like Datsyuk would be a major blow to this organization’s forward depth.