Pavel Datsyuk’s NHL rights belong to Arizona until July 1, but the Russian superstar is almost certain to be playing the 2019-20 season with a pair of wings on his jersey. Which city, league or nation it will be happening in is still an open question, however.
What is certain about the future Hall of Famer is that he is parting with KHL powerhouse SKA St. Petersburg, with whom he has spent the past three seasons, including the 2016-17 Gagarin Cup-winning campaign. “The St. Petersburg part of my career has come to an end,” the 40-year-old Datsyuk announced on Twitter at the end of April before expressing his thanks to the SKA organization and its fans.
While not saying what his next move would be, the wording didn’t seem to hint at retirement and, indeed, rumors coming out of Russia and guarded statements by his agent indicate Datsyuk is looking to play next year. The question, again, is where.
Datsyuk’s agent, Dan Milstein, who spoke to the Russian media shortly after the farewell tweet, said Datsyuk would be heading to Detroit to consider his options. Milstein has also all but confirmed that there are only two of them, one of which is Datsyuk’s hometown KHL team Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg. As free-agent calculus goes, figuring out the other option isn’t particularly difficult. One can safely assume it isn’t going to be the Coyotes.
Avtomobilist, which incidentally happens to wear red jerseys with a winged logo, might actually be a better team than the current incarnation of the Red Wings. The perennial KHL also-rans were a major success story this season, finishing first in the Eastern Conference before bowing out in the second round of the playoffs.
Still, a comeback/farewell tour in the Motor City does sound very enticing, provided there’s a reciprocal feeling in Detroit. The Datsyuk-to-Wings rumors, which originated early in the season, obviously didn’t take the recent front-office changes into account.
Incoming GM Steve Yzerman has a well-documented fondness for Russian players in general and undoubtedly for his ex-teammate in particular, but bringing in a player on the wrong side of 40 for what would be primarily a PR mission doesn’t seem like a prudent step for a rebuilding franchise.
Datsyuk is the latest big-name player to depart SKA in the last year, following Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Voynov, and Datsyuk showed signs of aging during his tenure as the team’s captain. The ‘Magic Man,’ who never had Jaromir Jagr’s age-defying resiliency and injury-proof body, had a more limited role on SKA’s roster in 2018-19, playing a shade over 17 minutes per game. He did manage 42 points in 54 games, his best KHL output, but he looked worn down during the playoffs when he was forced to miss six games with an injury.
Datsyuk’s days as a two-way Selke Trophy star are behind him and, while he can still dazzle from time to time, he’s no longer the human highlight reel that North American fans have grown accustomed to. “I need to consider what help I can offer a team and whether I can offer any at all,” said the characteristically self-effacing Datsyuk when posed a question about a possible NHL comeback earlier this year. One may argue that a player of Datsyuk’s skill set limited to third-line duties would hardly be helpful to Detroit.
Avtomobilist, on the other hand, would be absolutely ecstatic to get the favorite homeboy back into its jersey. Or rather just “into its jersey,” since the KHL franchise wasn’t yet in existence when Datsyuk left town for Ak Bars Kazan in 2000, having played for the now-defunct Dynamo Yekaterinburg.
Datsyuk, who still visits his native city and is tremendously loved by citizens there, would provide the same kind of major PR coup for the club that he was for SKA three years ago. Avtomobilist even seems to be preparing space for him on the roster as the team’s top two centers, Stephane Da Costa and Francis Pare, have departed in the off-season.
Datsyuk has remained mum on the subject, which is in character with his introverted and intensely private personality. He does seem to be looking beyond hockey these days, however, getting involved in Russian religious charities and even politics.
Lately, Datsyuk made some rather bizarre headlines in his home country as he aligned himself with Russia’s version of the religious right in their crusade against personal identity numbers. But if life in politics is in his future, as it is for many Russian athletes in the age of Vladimir Putin, hockey is likely to remain his main focus for the time being.
“Pavel has said many times he wants to end his career in Yekaterinburg,” Milstein said. “Everyone knows that. The question is how many more years he is planning to play. The options are in front of him. Now, it’s all up to Pavel.”
SEEING RED FOR THE FIRST TIME
We may not see Datsyuk in the NHL next season, but there are plenty of other intriguing Russian talents coming over for 2019-20 – Ryan Kennedy
Nikita Gusev, LW – St. Petersburg
Excellent playmaker and possession player finally gets a chance to strut his stuff in the NHL with Vegas after getting drafted by Tampa Bay in the seventh round back in 2012. Ranked No. 84 in Future Watch 2019.
Vitaly Kravtsov, RW – Chelyabinsk
The 2018 first-rounder with the New York Rangers is coming over after a strong WJC and a full KHL season with Chelyabinsk. He has size, skill and versatility as a winger who can play center. Ranked No. 5 in Future Watch.
Alexander Yelesin, D – Yaroslavl
Best known for his bomb shot from the point, Yelesin was a coveted free agent this spring, choosing the Calgary Flames as his next destination. He’s an aggressive two-way blueliner and a right-handed shot.
Vladislav Gavrikov, D – St. Petersburg
Blue Jackets fans got a sneak preview of Gavrikov, as he played two post-season games for Columbus against Boston. Next year, the all-around defenseman will get a chance to impress full-time.
Igor Shesterkin, G – St. Petersburg
One of the best netminders in the KHL the past few seasons, Shesterkin has an Olympic gold medal and a Gagarin Cup to his name. Now, he’ll battle for a job in the Rangers crease. Ranked No. 37 in Future Watch.
Ilya Mikheyev, RW – Omsk
A two-way player with great offensive numbers, the free agent Mikheyev chose Toronto over a number of suitors for his services. The 24-year-old played under Bob Hartley with Avangard this year.
Danil Yurtaikin, LW – Yaroslavl
Few youngsters scored as much as Yurtaikin did in the KHL this season, and the 22-year-old has speed to burn. The hardworking free agent chose San Jose as a fit this spring.
Daniil Tarasov, G – Ufa
A sleeper pick when Columbus nabbed him in 2017’s third round, Tarasov missed his entire draft year due to surgery for a growth on his shin. But he’s got size and a great hockey pedigree, and now he’s coming over.
Egor Korshkov, RW – Yaroslavl
Toronto’s second pick in the 2016 draft after Auston Matthews, Korshkov is a big, talented winger who came over at the end of the season and scored in his debut with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Artyom Zagidulin, G – Magnitogorsk
Zagidulin, a highly acclaimed free agent, has surrendered fewer than two goals per game the past three seasons. The Calgary Flames need depth in net and got him under contract.