IT’S SIMPLE: NO PAVEL, NO PARTY FOR WINGS

Not to be a wet blanket, but Red Wings fans, party at your own risk. Hockey may be back, but when your best offensive player isn’t even on the continent, only a fool pops champagne.

Here are two sobering words: “Pavel” and “Datsyuk.” Any hockey expert will tell you he’s the future of the Wings. And he’s not here! He’s in Russia, possibly under contract to not one but two teams. Ken Holland, charged with tightening Detroit’s belt, has muffed the first lesson of Salary Cap 101: Sign your biggest star.

“Pavel signed a contract with Omsk,” Holland told me this week, “and then another team, Moscow Dynamo, matched it. His agent has told me … there’s no out clause in the contract. Obviously, it’s a matter now of Pavel negotiating … to see if there’s a way that he can get out.”

Hmm. Call me naïve. But hoping a player can wiggle his way out of one contract – so that he can sign a new one with you – isn’t what they call “a position of strength.”

To say nothing of what it says about a signed contract.

Frankly, I’m amazed at how little fuss has been made about Datsyuk. If Chauncey Billups didn’t show for the next Pistons season, wouldn’t there be some noise?

Let’s be clear about something. Datsyuk, when it comes to offense, is the best the Wings have – no offense to the other guys. Heck, the other guys may tell you themselves. Datsyuk is young. He’s gifted. He’s creative and fast. He had a breakout year in 2003-04, when he shared the team lead in goals (30) and was tied for second in points (68). Who knows how good he was going to be this season?

It’s only because half of Detroit has never heard Datsyuk speak and the other half wouldn’t recognize him without his name stitched on his sweater that there isn’t panic in Hockeytown. But remember this:

No Pavel, No Party.

The seedy underbelly of contracts

“What makes you think Datsyuk can find an out clause in a contract that doesn’t have one?” I asked Holland.

“I believe Pavel wants to play for the Red Wings,” he said. “I’d like to think Pavel wants to be in Detroit. I’d like to think they are looking at everything.”

I’d like to think of myself as Brad Pitt. It doesn’t make it so.

What Holland is counting on is the sneaky way that overseas deals tend to evaporate if the right people are given the right money. And maybe that happens, and maybe Datsyuk is here for the opener Oct. 5.

But it’s worth asking how the savviest organization in the NHL could be reduced to hoping some cigar-chomping Russian billionaire takes the money and lets Pavel run.

So I asked Holland why he didn’t ensure Datsyuk was signed before fitting other Red Wings under the new cap.

“If I pay somebody a certain amount of money,” Holland said, “everybody that walks into my office knows what I’ve paid. So if you pay too much for one player, you better be prepared to pay too much for seven players.”

Unless you tell those players, “Sorry, you’re not as good as the other guy.”

It might not work, but it still would be true.

Too many aging players on offense

Yes, the Wings signed some familiar and reliable names. Yes, we’re glad that stalwarts like Kirk Maltby, Tomas Holmstrom and Kris Draper are on the team. But sports teaches us all the time that almost anyone is replaceable except a star. Especially a young star. Without Datsyuk, who’s the explosive offensive threat other teams worry about? Yes, Henrik Zetterberg is terrific. But having him is no reason to lose Datsyuk, 27. The rest of the offensive roster is old or getting older. Robert Lang was the other 30-goal scorer in 2003-04, but he’ll turn 35 this year and has reached that tally only once before in his career.

Besides, it’s not as if Datsyuk wanted to break the bank. He wasn’t asking for $10 million. The Wings are reportedly ready to give him around $4 million a year. If giving him $5 million would have secured him earlier, would that have been so bad?

Too late now. The talks dragged. Competition jumped in. It’s no surprise the Wings are rusty with this new budget stuff. It’s like expecting Paris Hilton to compare lettuce heads.

But Russia is making Detroit feel the way Detroit once made a lot of NHL clubs feel. The Wings used to step on the ice and blind opponents with their roster. Now their roster is good but not intimidating – and far less so without Datsyuk.

The Rolling Stones once said you can’t always get what you want, but the Wings are missing something they need. And unless that diamond is returned, they won’t be blinding anyone the way they used to.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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