Another Detroit Red Wings season came to an end on Thursday evening with the club’s first-round loss to Steve Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning. And with the end of the season comes the likely end of Red Wings megastar Pavel Datsyuk’s NHL career.
Datsyuk confirmed in mid-April, citing family reasons, that he was likely finished in the NHL. It’s expected that he’ll return to his Russian homeland to play in the KHL next season, though until the ink is drying on his deal with, say, CSKA Moscow anything can happen. This is probably it though for the magic man and its been an emotional goodbye for Red Wings fans, who have been spoiled over the past seven years by Datsyuk’s puck wizardry and unrivalled excellence in all-three zones.
It was also an emotional end of the season for Datsyuk and for some of his Red Wings teammates.
“Very emotional,” Datsyuk said of how he was feeling after Thursday night’s game, according to the Detroit News. “I need to cool down and start thinking about it (his decision) more.”
As reporters pressed further about Datsyuk’s future, the superstar centre stick handled their loaded questions expertly. He told the press that he’d been ‘honored to wear the Red Wings jersey’, but he revealed little. Through and through, you can never say that the magic man was anything but illusive.
“Not happy about these questions,” Datsyuk said. “Scary questions.”
They’re scary questions indeed, particularly for a Red Wings team that really can’t afford to have $7.5 million in dead salary cap space on the books next season – particularly not when there’s work to be done and key restricted free agents like Riley Sheehan, Petr Mrazek and Danny DeKeyser to sign.
Datsyuk’s long-time teammate Niklas Kronwall seemed to speak for Red Wings fans – and the North American hockey-watching public more generally – when he expressed his hope that Thursday night’s game wouldn’t be the last time we’d see the three-time Selke trophy winner sport the winged wheel on his chest.
“Let’s hope it’s not, I just hope it’s not,” Kronwall said. “It’s a pretty empty feeling. I just hope for everyone’s sake, for the hockey fans and us and Detroit that’s it’s not.”
We can expect this story to be front-and-centre at Red Wings garbage bag day next week and when Ken Holland meets the media for his end of year remarks. Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, for example, declined comment on Thursday night – insisting that he’d wait until locker room clean out day before addressing the issue.
On the podium, as he’s required to be following playoff games, the responsibility of speaking for the organization fell to first-year Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill.
“Pavel will do what Pavel wants to do,” Blashill said. “I’ll sit down with Pavel at the end of the year and obviously with (the Ilitches and Kenny Holland) and we’ll see what he decides
“Pavel is one of the best competitors that will ever be in this league. He was amazing to coach this year. I hope I get the chance to coach him again next year. His work ethic is unreal.”
As Datsyuk decides what to do next, there will be lengthy reminiscences about what he accomplished during his career. And because Datsyuk will fall short of some of the key milestones – like 1000 career points – there may be something of a Hall of Fame debate.
There shouldn’t be any debate., of course. Datsyuk was the most dominant two-way player of his era, bar none. And this is an era where – thanks to the advent of shot-based metrics – we can actually better contextualize precisely what he meant to the Red Wings.
Since 2007, the Red Wings have controlled a higher percentage of shot-attempts, total shots and total goals with Datsyuk on the ice than any other team has with any other forward, according to hockeyanalysis.com. When it comes to the act of actually outscoring opponents, which is the whole point, no NHL forward has been better than Datsyuk.
From the dangles, to the footwork, to the stick checks, to the uncanny spatial awareness; Datsyuk was special. He won Stanley Cups, suffocated opponents and left his mark on one of the NHL’s most storied franchises. He also made his mark on Red Wings fans. Kyle from Winging It Motown summed up the emotional reaction nicely:
I grew up watching Pavel Datsyuk. I was inspired by him after watching the Russian Five. The way he played the game was symphonic. A true maestro of puck-handling and two-way play. Bar-none, one of the best Red Wings players of all-time. Thank you, Pavel. I hate to say goodbye like this, so let’s hope it isn’t goodbye. If it is, then thank you for doing what you did. You made the game beautiful.
Revered by his peers, teammates and fans alike, Datsyuk didn’t answer the ‘scary questions’ about what lies ahead on Thursday night. There’s nothing he could’ve said that would’ve been appropriate anyway.
For Red Wings fans and the organization itself, after all, the question of ‘what will life be like after Datsyuk?’ has always been terrifying. And there’s no way to answer a question like that words.