On Datsyuk’s Departure and What’s Ahead for the Red Wings

The extension of the Detroit Red Wings’ playoff streak and the excitement of also having a much more (on paper, anyway) beneficial matchup with the first-round rematch against the Tampa Bay Lightning is good news. Or, at least, fun news, certainly opposed to one of the best regular season teams in the past decade in the Washington Capitals. But that fun certainly gets tempered with the seeming confirmation of a long-standing, yet underplayed rumour concerning one of their stars, and an eventual Hockey Hall of Famer.

Pavel Datsyuk has played his last regular season game ever in the NHL, and with the Detroit Red Wings.

I, and I’m sure others, first heard of the possibility of Datsyuk returning to Russia last spring after he had finished the first year of a three-year extension to his contract.  The underlying concept was Datsyuk’s body had been to hell and back with major back, shoulder, and ankle issues. That given his NHL accomplishments, and the fact that he had a maturing teenage daughter back in Russia he wasn’t able to see from September through April, barring the odd visit by her to Detroit or East Coast cities the Wings were playing at during breaks from her schooling, enough would become enough.

Datsyuk didn’t necessarily have to be harangued into coming back to the Red Wings this past season. But it was serious enough that he wanted to be in good health heading into the summer, and not that it was a deal breaker per se, but once Mike Babcock decided not to extend in Detroit, and left for the Maple Leafs, he felt better about having fresh voices and perspectives in the Red Wings dressing room.  Quotes from Henrik Zetterberg and Jimmy Howard certainly seemed to flesh that out later in the summer, that although grateful to Babcock for his intensity and belief in them, new players for the coach, and a new coach for the players might have been the best situation for all to thrive in coming into this season.

The real impetus for this development was actually the time Datsyuk spent during the fall lockout in 2012, playing in the KHL, with the CSKA Moscow team.  Datsyuk played 31 games with the likes of Alex Radulov, Viktor Kozlov, Mikhail Grabovski, and even current Red Wing youngster, Alexey Marchenko.  The money was good enough and the travel and game schedule actually lighter, that even when the Red Wings played out their 48-game shortened season, and made their only second-round playoff appearance since 2011, going back was a lot more of a real possibility.

Playing in the Sochi Olympics, despite the Russian’s team crash out in the quarters against Finland (Datsyuk assisted on the game’s first goal by Ilya Kovalchuk, before Finland scored the next three), only tightened the bond between player and country and some of his national teammates.

Datsyuk, it’s believed by many close to him, may sign a two-year deal with a KHL club (with the second-year option being Datsyuk’s).  He will be 38 at the beginning of next season’s opener, and the only thing that could potentially convince him to play into 2017-18 is if his body can hold up (again, less overall travel and 60 regular season games) and if, in his 40th year, he could play a notable role on Russia’s 2018 Olympic hockey team in South Korea. His hero and former Wings teammate, Igor Larionov, was still a key factor on Russia’s 2002 team in Salt Lake, helping the Russians to a bronze medal, and Datsyuk’s talents and inspiration might be vital in doing the same in just over 24 months.  I wouldn’t rule it out.

As for the Red Wings, there has to be some culpability for Ken Holland on this one.  When the extension was signed in the summer of 2013 after the shortened season, the potential was always there for Datsyuk (then a month shy of turning 35) to not finish a front-loaded three-year extension (Datsyuk was paid $10M in 14/15, $7.5M this season, and was owed $5.5M in salary next year).  Not great business to pay an oft-injured (yet supremely talented) player $17.5M over two seasons in his mid-to-late 30s, only to be stuck with a $7.5M cap hit for next season.  If Holland offered then, to go year-to-year with Datsyuk, does Datsyuk flinch?  He sure hasn’t ever expressed a desire to play with any other NHL team.  It would have been an interesting game of  “chicken”.

Will Red Wings fans pin the blame on Datsyuk, if stuck with the money?  It’s doubtful.  During the upcoming playoff series against the Lightning, the focus is solely on surviving and advancing.  Unlike other Wings who have been treated harshly and somewhat shabbily by a vocal base when returning in another uniform, like Sergei Fedorov or Marian Hossa (yes, I know – huge difference in career contributions, which tells you how childish and petty the Fedorov-booing was in his Anaheim days), Datsyuk won’t be returning wearing colors or a logo hated by the fans.  If Datsyuk were to inconceivably return after a year off with the Blackhawks or Kings, then, yeah, the knives come out — but he won’t, so they won’t.

Sources tell me Holland has been grimacing and bracing for this moment to become reality while already facing cap issues with long-term deals and four notable RFAs (Mrazek, DeKeyser, Pulkkinen, Sheahan) who need raises.  The search is already on to find a team to take Datsyuk’s dead money contract just so that team can be above the yet-to-be-set salary cap floor in 2016-17.  Of course, there has to be an incentive to do that, meaning the Red Wings part with a young player, potentially, to make this work. 

Carolina is a candidate that stands out for me, after shedding their financial obligations to Cam Ward and Eric Staal this coming offseason (a combined $14.6M on Carolina’s cap).  There may even be a desire for a Winnipeg or an Ottawa to take the Datsyuk deal if the 16-17 season is seen as one of transition and re-shuffling to some extent.  Of course, landing the #1 overall pick later this month at the lottery may change that line of thinking for the Canes, Jets, or Sens.  Winnipeg would need to move a salary out likely given raises are coming for Schiefele and Trouba, and Byfuglien’s cap hit moves from $5.8M to $7.6 when his extension kicks in.

Does it make it more likely the Red Wings re-sign Darren Helm?  No, not in the least.  Helm is going to command a potential 4-year deal in the neighborhood of anywhere from $3.75M/year to $4.25M.  Until Datsyuk’s money is moved, it’s impossible for Detroit to take on that commitment.  Unless you can think of an easy way to trade Jonathan Ericsson.  Or Jimmy Howard.  Or go back in time and prevent the Stephen Weiss signing and subsequent buyout.  Or make Johan Franzen’s final four years injury-free.  

Even with maybe the most favorable first-round matchup (no Stamkos or Stralman for Tampa) for the Red Wings since 2011 against the Coyotes, the sting of the Datsyuk news and the other economic hurdles to be faced entering the final season at Joe Louis Arena, are of sizable concern.