We may have witnessed the end of a Hall-of-Fame career Thursday night when Pavel Datsyuk's Detroit Red Wings fell in Game 5 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing the Atlantic Division semifinal matchup four games to one.
Datsyuk, 37, is weighing whether to return to his native Russia and play there next season. Doing so would saddle Detroit with his $7.5-million cap hit for the final year of his contract, as players 35 or older stay on the cap even if they retire from the NHL. Nevertheless, he's seriously considering the decision, though he said after Thursday's defeat he wants to take some time to ponder it.
From a personal perspective, sure, it's understandable. It's common for European players to head home for a final season or two before fully retiring. Datsyuk has done everything he was ever going to do as an NHLer. He has two Stanley Cups, three (consecutive) Selke Trophies, four (consecutive) Lady Byng Trophies and three All-Star Game appearances. He spent a considerable chunk of his career as a top-five player in the game. He's one of the best defensive forwards in hockey history. He's a Hall of Famer, through and through.
The natural assumption is that, on Detroit's end, Datsyuk staying to finish out his contract is the best-case scenario. Obviously, it would stink for Detroit to be on the hook for $7.5 million, though a trade partner needing to reach the salary floor could remedy that. Datsyuk can also still play. He's a legit Selke candidate again this season. He had 49 points in 66 games. He's still dynamite on faceoffs. He's still Datsyuk, maybe not the 97-point Datsyuk of his early 30s, but more or less the great veteran player he's been for the past half decade.
But perhaps GM Ken Holland should look at the big picture here. This team will not win a Stanley Cup before Datsyuk's career ends, or probably Henrik Zetterberg's, for that matter. It bowed out in five games to a Tampa Bay team missing its best player, Steven Stamkos, and one of its top two defensemen, Anton Stralman. Yes, Lightning goalie Ben Bishop stole much of the series, but that just means the Wings lost to a team with better players, doesn't it? Detroit has finished with 93 points and a .567 points percentage, 16-year lows, twice in the past three seasons. It's almost as if the Wings' relentless pursuit of the playoff berth streak, now at 25 years, has doomed them to mediocrity. They always field a team good enough to make the big dance, but it's been years since we took them seriously as Cup contender.
The Wings are now a team in transition. Veterans like Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall can still play the game well but are past their primes. On the other end of the spectrum, promising center Dylan Larkin just completed his rookie season and has the looks of a long-term franchise player. Goalie Petr Mrazek is a roller coaster at times but is just 24 and owns career regular season and playoff save percentages of .920 and .931, respectively. He, too, is just beginning a promising career. Same goes for speedy dangler Andreas Athanasiou and budding goal scorers Teemu Pulkkinen and Anthony Mantha, neither of whom has settled in as a bona fide NHLer yet. Evgeny Svechknikov, last year's first-round draft choice, hasn't turned pro.
The Wings' farm system graded out as the NHL's 20th-strongest according to our scouting panel in THN Future Watch 2016, with two players in the top 50, Mantha and Svechnikov. Their blueline prospect pool ranks among the league's weakest, topped by Xavier Ouellet, who bounces up and down between the AHL and NHL and hasn't been able to stick, five years after he was drafted.
Detroit is stuck in limbo right now. Most of its best young players are not NHL ready, and it doesn't have an blue-chip crop on the way. The Wings need to do something they have rarely if ever had to do during the Holland era: stock their prospect pool with elite, high-ceiling prospects. They've relied on diamonds in the rough from director of European scouting Hakan Andersson for years, but maybe it's time to change their philosophy. Detroit hasn't picked in the top 10 of a draft in 25 years.
Detroit's top veterans are in the process of aging out, Datsyuk may want out altogether, and maybe that's a blessing for this franchise. It's time for Detroit to experience something it hasn't this millennium: being bad. Waving goodbye to Datsyuk would hurt this team in the pocket book and in the standings, but maybe the Wings should welcome the latter. It's time to move backward to move forward. Forget the playoff streak. If the Magic Man says he's finished, mutually parting ways makes sense.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin