For the second time in two years, the Detroit Red Wings have to say goodbye to an integral part of their organization.
After a sudden onset of rumors, media speculation, and vague non-comments, Pavel Datsyuk has confirmed to Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press that he intends to go home to Russia after the conclusion of the 2015/2016 NHL Playoffs. “I have overstayed,” the 37 year old mentioned. Though there is still to be one final meeting with Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, Datsyuk’s mind is all but made up at this point. He wanted to wait until after the regular season was over to release the news, so as to not distract from the intense playoff push that colored the end of the season.
Datsyuk cites family – namely his adolescent daughter – as his reasoning for leaving the team a year before his contract ended. Ever since he went back to Russia in 2012 to play during the NHL lockout, the urge to return home has been nearly insurmountable. The only reason he stayed the past two years was due to loyalty to the team, respect for the Illitch family, and an impressive contract offer from Ken Holland.
Aside from his personal life drawing him back to his homeland, his lengthy list of injuries is putting a damper on his game. Datsyuk revealed the true magnitude of the work he had done on his ankle over the summer; a routine procedure on his damaged right ankle turned into a 4 hour surgery in which it was discovered that his tendons were destroyed (they were replaced via cadaver, a process that would have led many to retirement). His recovery was further hampered by the ankle getting infected, leading to another appointment under the knife.
Detroit fans will not be eager to find fault or disgust in Datsyuk’s decision. The 15-year Red Wing has brought a plethora of success, both personal and team-based, to the organization. He was instrumental in Stanley Cup victories in 2002 and 2008 (with another near-victory in 2009), as well as having brought home 3 Selke Trophies and 4 Lady Byng awards. The “Magic Man” is beloved by fans in Russia and Detroit alike, perpetually leaving those who watch him in wonder and awe. Even when the rumors of Datsyuk headed back overseas first started popping up, his fans did not lash out at him or scream about salary cap space or contractual obligations. Rather, they showed him exactly how much he means to the team and the city, chanting “One More Year” at a recent ceremony honoring his 600 assists with the team.
Datsyuk is more than aware of the $7.5 million cap hit he will be leaving in Detroit’s lap. “I feel very bad about it,” he said, mentioning that he wishes he would have done a year-by-year contract rather than the 3 year deal that kicked in when he was 36 years old. Due to Datsyuk being over 35 when he signed the deal, the CBA dictates that his retirement would leave the Red Wings with what is essentially a paid empty roster spot. Though no real money would actually be paid out, the hit against a $72 million salary cap would be near-crippling.
As Adam Laskaris first outlined when the rumors started floating last week, Detroit would actually have an option besides sitting with more than 10% of their salary cap in dead weight. By trading Datsyuk’s contract to a team looking to reach the salary cap floor, the Red Wings would incur a $2 million cap hit as a penalty for moving his contract, but would be free of the other $5.5 million. This option would leave Detroit a significant amount of cap space (and a top-6 roster spot) to possibly pursue a big-name free agent this summer – namely Steven Stamkos.
Trading a long-time Red Wing and team legend like Datsyuk, even if just for the sake of business and without any real games played, would not sit well with a large number of fans. The thought of having to endure “Coyotes legend Pavel Datsyuk” jokes (see: Martin Brodeur) for the rest of time is enough to make diehard fans wretch, however one must establish the cost-benefit analysis and determine whether or not an opportunity can be made by this untimely departure. The Red Wings have been a fringe playoff team for a few seasons now, never really making the postseason with much confidence and not having reached the Conference Finals since 2009. Though no fan or member of the Red Wings organization would like to see Pavel Datsyuk leave the team, it seems to be beyond Ken Holland or the Illitch family’s control. Holland has communicated to Datsyuk and his agent that he does not intend to move the contract, but one has to believe that the option must be, at the very least, considered.
The Red Wings are at a critical juncture; with much of their old guard (even aside from Datsyuk) being gone or on their way out, the architects of this team have to decide the trajectory in which the organization must move forward. Datsyuk leaving at the end of the year could be a crucial notch in that timeline, one in which a difficult, drastic, but possibly necessary decision is made that will change things up for the Red Wings. Not to insinuate that the team needs to “tank” or “blow it up and start over again,” but a franchise can only endure so many middle-of-the-pack finishes before moving up or down in the standings. By acting with more zeal than what he has typically displayed, Ken Holland can make the best of a somber situation by using this as an opportunity to give the team what it needs to succeed. Pavel Datsyuk is leaving the Red Wings, but the team must carry on.