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Wojo: Datsyuk's untidy adieu puts Wings in fix

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Pavel Datsyuk is introduced before the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the regular-season home opener at Joe Louis Arena  Oct. 9, 2015.

Detroit — This was the ending everyone saw coming, but not the ending anyone wanted. Pavel Datsyuk actually wanted to leave a year earlier. GM Ken Holland hoped he’d stay a year longer. And now the Red Wings, already caught in competitive limbo, are in a salary-cap mess.

It could have been a celebratory day, as one of the franchise’s magical stars bid farewell after 14 seasons to play in Russia and spend more time with his teenage daughter. Instead, it was a somber day, and unfortunately, it’s hard to separate the justifiable praise from the nagging blame.

As Datsyuk spoke at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, where he was holding a youth camp, he looked as human as we’ve ever seen him, sad and weary. Two hours later, Holland spoke at Joe Louis Arena, and looked disappointed and weary.

Datsyuk’s departure damages the team, and might even damage how Wings fans perceive him. I’m sure that contributed to the pain he showed, because I don’t think he initially knew of the salary-cap implications. Blame him for not knowing, and question him for signing a three-year contract he strongly suspected he’d never fulfill. But then be sure to step back and appreciate his spectacular contributions.

“I don’t have any hard feelings, not toward Pav,” Holland said Saturday. “He gave us 14 years of incredible hockey. He never complained, he just played hard. I understand why we’re standing here, and I’m gonna deal with it the best I can.”

You also have to blame Holland for taking a chance and not foreseeing this possibility until it was too late. Because the Wings signed Datsyuk after he turned 35, the NHL requires the cap figure ($7.5 million) to remain, even though he’s forfeiting the money. The rule was designed to keep teams from spreading salary over many years to lessen the cap impact. Holland said he knew the risk — Datsyuk long has talked of returning to Russia — but felt he had to take it for such a supreme talent.

Now, Holland must try desperately to trade the contract to a team that needs dead money just to reach the salary-cap floor. He said he’s “not overly optimistic” of pulling it off, because teams will demand assets such as future draft picks and young players to take the hit.

Free-agent freeze out

Here’s the difficult dance for Holland: The main reason (only reason?) to move the cap money is to open space for a prime free-agent on July 1. If he thinks he has a shot at, say, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, then he has to be motivated to trade the contract. But figuring out free-agent moves is dicey, and you don’t want to surrender assets only to come up empty. Essentially, if Holland can’t deal Datsyuk’s contract by July 1, you know the Wings won’t be major players in free-agency, which is a blow.

This is where we reiterate how important this offseason is for Holland. The Wings may have reached the playoffs 25 straight years, but the slippage is impossible to ignore.

“If Pav’s on our cap, we’re gonna put a team out that’s gonna be young, gonna be competitive, but certainly you’re going to be compromised by having $7.5 million in a player you don’t have,” Holland said. “This is a huge loss, it’s a huge hole, and it’s a very, very difficult situation.”

Holland admitted he could get more creative in the trade market, and the Wings are rife for a shakeup. If he can’t free the cap space to land a free-agent, he has to weigh the impact of a blockbuster deal against the prudence of growing with young players.

Holland said he doesn’t think there was any intentional deception by Datsyuk’s camp, and I doubt there was. Datsyuk abruptly changed agents, and somewhere the cap rule might have gotten lost in translation. Asked if he felt burned by it, Holland hesitated.

“When you manage, you can’t have emotions involved,” he said. “Am I disappointed that he hasn’t honored his contract? Yeah, but I’m gonna preface that with, I understand why. His heart isn’t in Detroit or in the NHL anymore. … Hindsight’s 20-20, but I don’t think Pav knew the (salary-cap) rules. He’s honorable, and he didn’t do this knowingly.”

You certainly can’t say the Wings were blindsided. In fact, Holland spent much of last offseason convincing Datsyuk to at least return for the 2015-16 season. That included a meeting at the Ilitches’ home, where an agreement was reached — if Datsyuk played the second year of the contract, the Wings would understand if he headed home before the final year, even though the ramifications were profound.

Datsyuk admitted he’d longed to go back since he played in Russia during the 2012-13 lockout. The internal battle was constant, although he didn’t let it show. He missed the start of his final season recovering from ankle surgery but still finished second on the team in points. He departs as the franchise’s sixth all-time leading point producer, and his stick-handling and play-making skills were as breathtaking as anyone who ever played here. He won two Stanley Cups and left a stellar legacy that might get smudged in the short term.

Homeland beckons

Datsyuk doesn’t have to explain why, at 37, he wants to finish his career playing in Russia’s KHL. But he did try to explain how difficult it was. He also said he was aware of the cap rule, but it was unclear if he learned about it after signing.

“When I came back after the lockout year, my mind was kind of thinking, I want to go home,” Datsyuk said. “Then (when he re-signed with the Wings) I’m thinking I would be OK with another three years. But then I go farther and farther, and it’s harder and harder. And now I just think it’s not fair, and I have to go home.”

'Time to go home': Pavel Datsyuk leaves Red Wings

And please, let’s not turn this into another woe-is-us tale of a Detroit athlete leaving before his time is up. Datsyuk has been plagued by injuries for a while, his effectiveness was diminishing and the team was struggling. And it’s impossible for us to fully grasp the tug of the homeland.

In his remarks, Datsyuk praised the Ilitches, his teammates, his coaches and the fans, and called Detroit his second home. We can debate where Datsyuk ranks among Red Wing greats, and there will be some support to retire his jersey No. 13. But that’s far from a pressing issue right now.

It shifts back to Holland, and one move isn’t going to turn the Wings into Cup contenders. Holland said he won’t trade Datsyuk’s contract if it costs any of his top prospects, including Anthony Mantha. Would a team take it for a second- or third-round pick, plus Tomas Jurco or Teemu Pulkkinen? Holland said he could already tell from conversations the asking price will be high.

Despite all the mutual praise, this felt like the least-satisfying retirement day ever. Datsyuk deserves accolades for all he’s done, and he’ll certainly get them. It’s just too bad it ended like this, with both sides wondering if it was too soon, or too late.