Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Holland had to do it

The first two things that come to mind when I think of Pavel Datsyuk are: 1) I can’t believe he is almost 29 years old already, and 2) he isn’t as good as he is skilled. Nowhere in even the first minute of thought (or ever) on the subject of Datsyuk does the idea of him being the franchise player enter my mind. I’m not trying to knock Datsyuk. I just won’t be confusing him with “Stevie Y” until he adds a new dimension to his game. So, I understand to some extent why there was a fair amount of backlash from the Detroit media with regards to Ken Holland’s decision to sign Datsyuk to a seven year contract extension worth close to $47 million. That comes out to an annual salary of $6.7 million which would have been among the top 15 salaries in the NHL this season. I don’t think Datsyuk has proven to be that type of player, yet.

It certainly seems a bit illogical to pay top dollar for a player that isn’t a top-dollar player. But, I think the Red Wings absolutely had to make the decision to re-sign Datsyuk. I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong. To borrow and slightly alter a line from the immortal Chainsaw from Summer School, “Resign Datsyuk. Had to be done.” The NHL is not the NBA. There is no such thing as a luxury tax in the NHL. The Red Wings can’t throw millions at players in free agency anymore and expect to land a superstar; there are 29 other teams trying to do the same thing with the same amount of money. As a result, the Wings have to keep whatever semblance of star power they have.

The NHL is also not like the NFL. There aren’t 22 starters in the NHL like there are in the NFL. The Detroit Lions traded one of the top cornerbacks in the league (or so Dre Bly has been dubbed) because they know that losing one or two players doesn’t usually make or break a franchise in pro football. The same cannot be said for the NHL. The Colorado Avalanche lost Peter Forsberg and they’re out of the playoffs. The Edmonton Oilers lost Chris Pronger and they’re out of the playoffs, too. It is so difficult to replace “skilled” players for a reasonable price in the NHL because of the hard cap. This makes it of the utmost importance to develop and keep your skilled players. The Tigers have done a fantastic job of this by keeping the likes of Jeremy Bonderman and Carlos Guillen under contracts for a reasonable amount of time at a reasonable price—and MLB doesn’t even have a cap.

The Red Wings have been fortunate enough to have two of their own draft picks develop into highly skilled players. In the present day NHL, that is half of the equation. The other half is keeping those players. Who wouldn’t love to have Sidney Crosby? Unfortunately, he is not available. All that’s available is Datsyuk and a crop of marginal free agents looking to break the bank. As a result, the Wings had to keep Datsyuk or risk the uncertainty of free agency. Every NHL team has the same dilemma. Do they slightly overpay to keep a player they know is pretty good or, do they let the player walk only to enter a bidding war that will almost surely result in paying even more money for a player that isn’t as good as the player you let walk in the first place? It is my guess that the teams that choose the latter are the teams that will be at the bottom of the NHL standings and vice versa.

The local media has lambasted Holland for the signing. The number one reason for said lambasting has been Datsyuk’s failures in the postseason. Granted, Datsyuk hasn’t done much of anything in the playoffs but the Wings as a team haven’t done much of anything either. The Wings have secured the #1 or #2 seed in the Western Conference in each of the last three postseasons without as much as a trip to the Conference Finals to show for it. Based on that track record, there isn’t a player on the roster that should be re-signed. Obviously, that isn’t true. Players struggle. I always loved how Barry Bonds was ridiculed for years for his postseason failures when he only amassed 97 postseason at-bats in his first 16 seasons. Similarly, Datsyuk is widely recognized as a playoff choker after playing only 21 playoff games in three years (he played 21 playoff games in his rookie year when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup but wasn’t a front-line player yet.) Steve Yzerman didn’t start having team success in the playoffs regularly until his 12th season and we know how that turned out. It is way too early for a final decision on Datsyuk’s legacy.

Some may argue that it is similarly way too early to be handing out a $47 million extension. Unfortunately, that decision was made because of the league’s financial parameters. You have to “play the cards you’re dealt” and by the rules that govern the game. The Wings can’t go out and sign Joe Thornton for $200 million. Nor can the Wings afford to go out and pay $45 for a fringe player just to appease the fan base anymore. GM’s now have to moonlight as financial wizards. As hard as it is to believe, Ken Holland probably saved money in the long run by tying up Datsyuk now. In fact, Holland has been masterful in virtually every move he has made since the initiation of the hard cap which should be reason enough to give him the benefit of the doubt on the Datsyuk signing. If you’re like the Pat Caputo’s of the world and think three playoffs over 21 games is enough to cast a player as a playoff choker for the rest of his career, then you probably don’t understand this move. If you’re one of those people that would have gladly accepted A-Rod for a couple of minor leaguers after his choke-job in the playoffs last season, or understand the new obstacles presented by the NHL’s hard cap, then you probably understand why this move had to be made.

If you were looking for the perfect move (i.e. trading four tooth picks for Todd Bertuzzi), then you were asking the impossible. I could make a laundry list of complaints about the Datsyuk signing. Seven years from now he’ll be 36 years old. That’s more than enough reason to blast this move. However, that would be a waste of time. The only thing that makes this move a good move or not is whether it was better than the alternative. For instance, if a robber holds a gun to your head and demands your wallet, you will probably give him/her your wallet. I can think of a number of awful consequences of giving up your wallet but those consequences hardly matter since it was better than getting your head blown off thus making giving up your wallet the right move. If you can’t offer a better alternative, then signing Datsyuk was the right move. The ultimate compliment to this move would be convincing Dominik Hasek to play for five more seasons.


Anonymous said...

Jake, you always bring an interesting perspective to our local teams. I dig it because it isn't the same BS the media feeds us every day.

Alright on the Pavel topic, I sort of agree with your point about the cap changing the dynamics of the way the Wings handle these situations. We have to keep our talent, expecting to replace our top guys with free agents is not realistic anymore.

The problem I have with the deal is the length. I wouldn't give a 7 year contract to any player in the NHL outside of Crosby or AO. To me with hockey or football a 7 year deal is a huge gamble in sports that are so physical.

I'll try and give Kenny Holland the benefit of the doubt cause more times than not he makes the right call. But this contract is going to either going to look very smart or just plain stupid. No in between. If Pavel is still producing at this rate in 5-7 years the contract will be a bargin then if the salary cap continues to rise.


Jake said...

Thanks for the comments, Mike. I agree that the length of the contract is concerning. I’m not sure why seven years was given but Datsyuk had some bargaining power since he was going to be an Unrestricted Free Agent. The Wings probably gave a little in that regard just to keep him. I don’t think there is any doubt that he would have gotten more money on the open market at the same length.

You brought up an interesting point that I neglected to mention in the post. Three or four years from now, $6.7 million won’t be top-15 money. As you said, as long as Datsyuk stays productive, this will end up being somewhat of a bargain near the latter half of the contract.


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