Solidifying a large part of their future, the Detroit Red Wings reached an agreement today with free-agent-to-be Pavel Datsyuk on a 7-year-contract, worth roughly $6.5 million a season on average. It is a huge commitment for a huge talent, and in the new era of the NHL salary cap, the Red Wings have proven once again why they are the best organization in hockey.
With Henrik Zetterberg, Datsyuk makes up one of the best one-two punches in the NHL, and both players are just entering the prime of their careers (Zetterberg is signed through the 2009 season, and the Red Wings, due to the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, cannot negotiate with Zetterberg on an extention until July, 2008) and should only get better as the years go on. Datsyuk can skate and move down the ice like few players can, and he is in the midst of the best season of his young career, totaling 87 points with 27 goals. As one of the best young centers in hockey, Datsyuk would have commanded a premium on the free agent market, and with the restrictions of the NHL salary cap, it would have been hard for the Wings to win a bidding war over his services, given the large amounts of the cap currently dedicated to other players, like Captain Nick Lidstrom. Signing him to a long-term deal now, before he ever reaches the free agent market, is a huge coup.
Not only that, but the long-term deal makes a lot of sense in another way as well. The NHL Salary Cap is growing, and, will be growing for the foreseeable future,. This means that by signing Datsyuk to such a long contract, the Wings were likely able to backload his salary, making Datsyuk's contract cheap in the early years while the cap is still relatively low, and more expensive in future years, where the cap is likely to increase. In the end the Wings benefit because even if they start paying Datsyuk inflated salaries in years five, six, and seven, because the expectation is the Salary Cap will grow accordingly up to and during those years, even at an increased salary, Datsyuk's contract may be considered "cheap" given what players of his caliber will be signing for in 2011 and 2012 and his salary will be a smaller percentage of the overall cap.
So while the Red Wings have never signed a player to such a long-term deal before, not even Steve Yzerman, the deal makes a lot of financial sense. Plus, because Datsyuk is only 28-years-old, it won't be like he'll be 40 when the contract expires and we won't know what kind of player he'll be. Datsyuk will be 35 in 2014 (if my math is correct) and baring injuries, should still be a very productive player. Look at Chris Chelios. He's 45 and still continues to have great season after great season.
With the playoffs on the horizon (and I love the NHL playoffs, though that's probably best saved for a future post) signing Datsyuk now takes a load off of General Manager Ken Holland's shoulders and prevents the contract talks from distracting from what hopefully will be a long playoff run. What Pavel must do now, though, is perform in these playoffs. He has traditionally struggled in the post-season, but some of that is due to injury and inexperience. Neither of those excuses will fly this season, especially given the large commitment the Red Wings just made to him with his new contract. But I have no doubts that this will be the playoff season where Datsyuk breaks out and helps carry the Wings further into the post-season then they have been in years. That is if injuries don't take away all of the Wings other weapons, which as the season wraps up, is certainly a concern.