Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Greatest Red Wings of MY Time - #6

Wow. Talk about nothing going on today. I guess the NHL, like the rest of us, has decided to take the day off in anticipation of one of the last weekends of the summer. So let's just dive right in to #6 on the list of Greatest Red Wings of My Time.

Pavel Datsyuk

Pertinent Stats: 606 GP, 198 G, 394 A, 592 P, +176
Awards: Lady Byng - 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009; Selke Trophy - 2008, 2009, 2010
Stanley Cups: 2 - 2002, 2008

Instead of talking about Datsyuk, I honestly just considered putting up a bunch of Youtube videos displaying his sick moves. However, that's kind of lazy, so I guess I'll write about why he gets the #6 spot.

Pavel Datsyuk was drafted in the 6th round of the 1998 NHL draft after being passed over the previous 2 years. When the Wings picked him, I'm guessing they didn't realize exactly how good he was, or else they would have picked him earlier. He joined the team in 2001-02 and immediately found some chemistry with Boyd Devereaux and Brett Hull. His rookie year was good but not great, and he chipped in 35 points in the regular season, and 6 in the playoffs, helping the Wings win the Cup. I remember that even then he had some amazing hands, although the flashes of that brilliance were not as prevalent as they are today.

The next year saw the arrival of Henrik Zetterberg, and together with Brett Hull they formed the "Two Kids and an Old Goat" line, which I think is the longest line name in NHL history. It seemed pretty obvious that Datsyuk and Zetterberg had chemistry together, but in the playoffs Datsyuk was a bit of a no-show, resulting in the Wings' exit at the hands of the Ducks (although the rest of the team was just as bad). Over the next few years, Pavel saw his role on the team grow as more veterans left; he moved up to become the predominant passer on the team when Federov left, and after Yzerman and Shanahan moved on, he found himself as one of the leaders on the team. He didn't disappoint, putting up consecutive seasons of 87 points in 2005-06 and 2006-07. However, until the spring of 2006-07, his playoff performance left something to be desired.

It was well-documented going into that postseason that Datsyuk had not scored a goal since being a rookie, a total of 3 playoff seasons. With the rest of the old guard gone, it was up to him and Zetterberg to pick up the team offensively and lead the way. He responded to his role as leader by racking up 8 goals and 16 points in 18 games, losing to the Ducks in the Conference Finals. It seemed like he had rid himself of his playoff demons, and the next year he was even better, scoring 10 goals and adding 13 assists on the Wings' way to the Cup. There was no question that he was one of the main leaders on the team now, and in 2008-09 he racked up 97 points and was nominated for a Hart Trophy. In the playoffs, he missed the first 4 games of the Finals and was unable to get the Wings to a second straight championship. I know I've often wondered whether the Wings would have won had he been healthy. Yes, I understand that argument that they were up 3-2 without him, but I just feel that had he been in the lineup, the burden would have shifted off Zetterberg and they would have been more energetic in Game 6 (and 7, had it come to that). Oh well. He had an off year last year, but I'm not going to dwell on that.

There's not much I can say about Datsyuk that hasn't been said before. The man is easily one of the most offensively-gifted players in the NHL today. Some of the moves he has made in his career have made me stop what I was doing and stare at the TV, mouth open with a handful of nachos halfway to my lips (I like to eat nachos during the game). Yet, for every move that I've seen, he pulls out another one that is better. I wonder where he learns this stuff, and how often he practices it. I'm waiting for him to be on a breakaway, drop the puck back between his legs, sweep kick the puck back up to his stick and then deke the goalie (a move I have made many times alone, but never had the guts to try in a game). I think I would literally pee myself if I ever saw that.

But it's not just the offense. He's also one of the best two-way players in the game, as evidenced by the three straight Selke Trophies he has won as the best defensive forward in hockey. While there are those that argue that he should not have won this past year, my completely biased opinion is that it was well-deserved. I know we tend to think about defensive forwards as the checking line guys and penalty killers, but Datsyuk has taken his role and embraced it at all times when he is on the ice. Countless times we have seen him catch up to a player from behind, steal the puck, and then immediately turn back up ice and create an offensive chance. He's a tireless checker, and can be found behind his own goal line looking for the puck. And, despite his smaller frame, he can throw the body around a little bit. I would imagine that trying to check Datsyuk would be like trying to hit a skinny but solid tree; there's just no way you're going to move it. Of course, you'll have to catch him first.

I'm not sure what else I can say to illustrate just how ridiculously good Datsyuk is. In terms of stickhandling ability, I'd say he's on par with Federov and just ahead of Yzerman (when Stevie was in his prime). His speed is still there even though he's on the wrong side of 30 (he's a few months older than I am). He seems to have an almost endless supply of energy every night. And in an era when defense is stressed and offense is down, he's almost at a point-per-game pace. I shudder to think what Datsyuk would have done in the early 90s or the 80s with the open ice and less clutching and grabbing. He's been a perennial All-Star, a Hart Trophy finalist and a 3-time winner as the best defensive forward in hockey. Not bad for a guy that was available for 2 years as an undrafted player, and then for 5 rounds in the draft he was taken in.

And now, for your enjoyment, let's get to those Youtube videos:

There are no words to accurately describe just how pretty those are.


  1. Going back to that cup-clinching game against Carolina in '02 that was on NHL Network the other day, Datsyuk looked so young and kind of unsure of himself. I kept seeing the puck near him and thinking "oh here he goes", but back then there were only the flashes. Of course, he got hooked and held all over the ice, as was the norm and he hadn't bulked himself up, but he shot a cross-ice pass to Hull in the first period of that game that was just amazing. The pass ended up getting to Hull a little quicker than he could react, but the setup was just beautiful.

    I have a special place for Pavel Datsyuk because he's the first Wings player I saw develop in front of my eyes from that kid to the dominant star he is now.

  2. JJ,

    I was thinking something along those lines. It's weird to look back at him as a rookie and see how tentative he was, especially considering how much his overall game has developed since then. The end-to-end rush that I included was from his rookie season, so there were definitely flashes there.

    Pavel's development mirrored Federov's, although I would say that Sergei came in to the NHL a little more polished and sure of himself. But Pavel definitely seems to have a stronger work ethic on the ice.

  3. Graham -

    Here's a Datsyuk story for you. Every year, we travel from Kansas City over to St. Louis for a Wings game against the Blues. In 2002, when Dats was on with Deveraux and Hull (2 kids and an Old Goat), we got to the rink early and watched warmups. There was Datsyuk, just a kid, everyone is shooting and skating, driving the net, etc. He's just passing the puck off the boards to himself, from the middle of the rink to the side boards - I'm assuming to gauge the bounces and see how the puck reacts at different levels of the boards. Saucer passes, bouncers, everything. Even as a kid, it was clear that night that he thought the game at a different level, anyone can put the puck in the net, but how are the boards going to react when you pass to one of your teammates off the boards!?

    Oh yeah, that game - it was 2-0 so fast in the 1st, we'd hardly even started our beer! Hull from Datsyuk was the 2nd goal that night. I think the final was 5-1 or something crazy like that.


  4. Kendal,

    That's really cool. I remember reading a story that said that scouts were impressed by his hockey intelligence, but he said he got smarter from playing soccer. I never thought I would be happy that soccer could influence hockey, but I'm all right with being wrong in that situation.

    Nice on the win. Any time you can see the Wings win on the road, it's a special feeling. Especially against a rival.

  5. Dude - trust me, soccer and hockey are very much alike! You pass to open areas, you have to support your teammate, but can't crowd the ball/puck, the ball/puck moves faster than the players (unless you're Sergey Federov), I love hockey having grown up in Detroit, and I've been able to coach soccer for my boys because I understand the game - but I only understand soccer due to all those years watching (and playing a little) hockey.

    Very similar, except the boards. Oh, and indoor soccer is commonly referred to as "hockey with a soccer ball" or walled-soccer and is of course, very much frowned upon by the purists (they prefer Futsal).