If Pavel Datsyuk were to go back home to play in the KHL next season and turn his back on the last year of his contract with the Detroit Red Wings, it would leave an enormous leadership and talent void on the roster. But it might not be the end of the world for them.
In fact, if things work out they way they potentially could, it could be a boon for the Red Wings. If Datsyuk were to let the Red Wings know of his intentions early enough, it would open up some valuable cap space and allow them to go after the biggest free agent in the pool, Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman announced Saturday that Stamkos has a blood clot and faces a recovery period of one-to-three months, meaning there is a chance the pending unrestricted free agent has played his last game for the Lightning. It is expected, however, that Stamkos will make a full recovery.
This much we know: Datsyuk is considering the possibility of playing in Russia next season, despite the fact he has one year remaining on his deal with the Red Wings, a deal that will pay him $5.5 million and carry a cap hit of $7.5 million. His 37-year-old body is feeling the rigors of playing in the NHL and there is the sense he’d like to finish his career in a place that is more freewheeling and not as physical. The Red Wings know there is a possibility that Datsyuk will retire after this season. What they don’t know yet is whether Datsyuk actually will leave, nor is it believed Datsyuk has made his mind up one way or another.
The rumors of Datsyuk’s departure were broached by Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada Saturday night, confirming the same things your correspondent has been hearing on the Datsyuk front. These rumors are nothing new. I had been told that Datsyuk was prepared to leave this season, but stayed after the Red Wings made a coaching change.
Now if Datsyuk were to leave, the Red Wings would be on the hook for his $7.5 million cap hit. The reason for that is he signed a multi-year deal after the age of 35 and there is now way for the team to escape that hit to its cap.
But here's how I was told it could unfold. The Red Wings would be able to trade Datsyuk to a team such as the Arizona Coyotes, a team that will be looking to get up to the salary floor next season. Even with the $4.9 million cap hit devoted to the injured Chris Pronger, the Coyotes have just over $28 million devoted to 10 players for next season. Should a team such as Arizona take on the Datsyuk contract, it could come to a mutual agreement to terminate the contract, which would allow a team in the KHL to sign him without violating its agreement with the NHL to not poach players under contract. However, the cap hit would not go away because the deal was signed after Datsyuk turned 35, allowing the Coyotes (or another team) to gain $7.5 million in cap space without having to pay him.
It’s imperative from the Red Wings perspective that Datsyuk informs them of his decision by July 1. If he stays and the Red Wings have him for another season, don’t be surprised if Red Wings GM Ken Holland extends him for one more season in 2017-18 at the same $7.5 million cap figure. The difference this time is that if Datsyuk decides not to come back, the Red Wings will not be on the hook for the cap hit because it’s only a one-year deal.
After a mid-season lull, Datsyuk has actually been very productive lately. His assist in Detroit’s 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night gave him 10 points in his past 10 games. Datsyuk missed the first 15 games of the season with an ankle injury and one with an illness. He is scoring at a points-per-game clip of 0.76, which represents the lowest of his career with the exception of his rookie season.
(For the record, Datsyuk did not speak to the media after the game Saturday night in Toronto and a call to his agent, Gary Greenstin, was not returned.
Regardless of what the future holds for Datsyuk, the Red Wings will continue to lean heavily upon him as they make their frantic, late-season chase for a 25th consecutive trip to the playoffs. The Red Wings win over the Maple Leafs temporarily put them in third place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the Boston Bruins, who have one game in hand. The Red Wings have three games remaining, with crucial games against the Philadelphia Flyers and Bruins on the docket. They play the Flyers at home Wednesday night in a game that starts at 8 p.m., then have to travel to Boston for a a 7 p.m. start the next night. The Red Wings are tied with the Flyers with 91 points, but Philadelphia has two games in hand.
“The one thing I’ve got to manage is minutes,” said Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill. “Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg have played lots of minutes. In the end, we’re going to win and lose with our top players playing a lot of minutes and (Datsyuk) is certainly one of our top players, if not our top player.”