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Wings' magicians are something special

Thursday, 12.08.2005 / 12:00 AM / News
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Wings\' magicians are something special
There are frequently no words spoken between Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg before they make magic on the ice that other NHL players only wish they copy.

It's a quiet confidence. A communication beyond words, spiced with skill, instinct and an innate ability to produce something that a coach could only dream of drawing up on a chalkboard.

We've talked a lot about the dazzling performances that have been turned in by Ottawa's line of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley or Philadelphia's potent unit with Peter Forsberg, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble, as well as Carolina's trio centered by Eric Staal or Craig Conroy's line in Los Angeles or Ilya Kovalchuk's line in Atlanta. But for pure magic, there's nothing more unpredictable than the moves Datsyuk and Zetterberg produce every night.

"Sometimes Pavel will give me a wink or nod his head ... and I usually know what he means," Zetterberg told me.

Sort of like Peyton Manning gesturing at one of his receivers, when he gets up to the line of scrimmage?

Datsyuk nodded and said about the Manning comparison, "I used to point my fingers to a spot like he does for Brett Hull. It seemed to work."

Said Zetterberg, "I don't know how to describe it. I guess it's just instincts. I see him make a move and think, 'Where would I want my linemate to go if I was making the same kind of move he's making?'"

So, it's more than just coincidence. It's like twins finishing one another's sentences or a great comedy team adlibbing their way through a skit to make it more entertaining. What makes it even more impressive with Datsyuk and Zetterberg is they are from two different countries and cultures -- Sverdlovsk, Russia for Datsyuk and Njurunda, Sweden for Zetterberg.

In an Olympic year, it's amazing to see just how lucky we are to see the thread that pulls the greatest talent in the world together to make such marvelous theater from night to night -- especially in the new-look NHL, where these breathtaking skills can now be seen nearly every shift. And with the world stage NHL stars will have in Turin, Italy, for two weeks in February, think of how many more great players around the world will want to come to North America to play in our game.

Magical adlibs and instincts aren't the only things that makes Datsyuk and Zetterberg so special. It's the surprise that these two players are even getting the chance to play on the best stage in the world. After all, some 170 players were chosen in the NHL Entry Draft in 1998 before Datsyuk and even more, 209 players, were picked ahead of Zetterberg just one year later.

"I had never heard of Pavel and Henrik. Well, I had read a little about him in the Swedish newspapers and magazines I get from back home. But never in my wildest dreams did I think these names on a draft list would bring so much creativity and production to our lineup," said Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a three-time winner of the Norris Trophy. "And it's no fluke, either. (GM) Ken Holland and (assistant GM) Jim Nill seem to find great players every year. You don't know how much confidence that gives the guys who have been here for a while to know that somebody pretty darn good is going to come in to compete for a roster spot almost every year."

Several scouts interviewed for this column indicated that
Datsyuk always showed the great skill, it's just that the glimpses of brilliance were too far apart in his draft year. Like Datsyuk, Zetterberg's size was a point of contention in an NHL where bigger was better during all of those years where teams were able to trap and obstruct the smaller players who weren't equipped to fight through the hands and arms and stick-checks. Datsyuk is now listed at 5-11, 185 pounds and Zetterberg at 6-0, 190. Before they were drafted, Datsyuk was 5-10, 160 pounds and Zetterberg 5-11, 175 pounds.

"Pavel had loads of talent, but I remember saying to myself, 'At that size, can he make those breathtaking moves against the big people he'd be facing in the NHL?'" said Rick Dudley, the former GM in Ottawa, Florida and Tampa Bay, who now scouts for the Chicago Blackhawks. "The long and short answer: Obviously, he can."

"It's a fair question to wonder why did so many teams pass on Datsyuk and Zetterberg," said former Calgary GM Craig Button, who now scouts for the Toronto Maple Leafs. "I remember thinking that Zetterberg was too skinny, too frail to take the pounding he'd receive in the NHL.

"Well, we were all wrong. Even the Red Wings must have had some doubts, or else they would have picked Pavel and Henrik earlier. What you have to give them credit for is sticking to their guns and drafting for skill and talent up and down the draft, when, at that point, other teams might be looking for a specific type of player like a defensive defenseman, a tough guy, a big center for a particular role in the later rounds. That seems to be the key to their success in the draft over the years with more than just Datsyuk and Zetterberg."

"There are players out there, you just have to find them," said Nill, who will someday soon find a GM's job in the NHL. "We go into each draft hoping to find at least two players. And we've discovered through time that if you're going to find a sleeper, it's probably going to be in Europe. Everybody wants the 6-foot scorer, the 220-pound, highly skilled North American. But those guys go high in the draft. We're not going to get them, because we usually don't pick until the end of each round.

"Actually, Pavel was even more difficult to evaluate. He went through the draft twice without being picked. But Hakan Andersson, one of our scouts, saw him a couple of times each year and kept telling us this little guy was a really good player. He said Pavel reminded him of a young Igor Larionov with his playmaking ability. Finally, we decided to overlook the size questions. We decided that you couldn't take away what he could accomplish with the puck -- his ability to find a teammates in almost any situation, the moves that make him so dangerous in the NHL now."

When you look at the players the Red Wings have brought over from Europe and the Iron Curtain nations like Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Kozlov, Tomas Holmstrom, Jiri Fischer, Datsyuk and Zetterberg, along with a host of future prospects, you wonder why other teams don't do a more thorough job oversees.

"There are unknowns, starting with showing up at a rink in Russia only to find out the game you wanted to see was played yesterday," Nill said, shaking his head. "And then there's the language barrier and culture shock that you have to deal with (with) many of the kids. I remember going over to see Pavel a couple of years after we drafted him and calling to him. Finally, he turned around and said, 'I don't know the English.'"

His body language on and off the ice is just fine now.

For most of the 2003-04 season, Datsyuk was challenging Robert Lang, Martin St. Louis and Ilya Kovalchuk for the scoring race before he struggled down the stretch and finished with 30 goals and 38 assists in 75 games.

Zetterberg went from contender for the Calder Trophy in 2002-03 to a disappointing 15 goals and 28 assists in 2003-04, a season in which he missed 21 games and was bothered for long stretches with a crippling leg injury.

There's an elite level that often comes after players with the kind of skills that Datsyuk and Zetterberg have flashed in front of us. Both on a point-per-game pace this season and at least one "Great One" from the past thinks they are already at that level.

"The thing about elite players is you see what they do and the numbers they put up, but the next sign is the intensity they play with every shift," Gretzky said recently. "The next time you see them play, just look at the intensity on their faces and in their eyes. That's what impresses me most about Datsyuk and Zetterberg."

Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood has seen Datsyuk and Zetterberg from both sides -- in Detroit and when he played in St. Louis. He also marvels at the work ethic of the twosome.

"They are relentless," Osgood said. "I remember facing them when I was with the Blues and thinking, 'Take a shift off once in a while, please.' They were coming at us in waves all night, every time we played them.

"Of course, now that I'm back in Detroit, I'll give them a pat on the butt and encourage them to keep putting the pressure on the opposition. It's really something to watch them now. It seems like every time they are on the ice, they are dangerous."

And it's more than just flash and dash and a passing fancy.

"It's funny, but Pavel used to want to beat the same guy three times on one play," Holland said. "Now, he beats one guy and goes to the next, and taking the puck to the net is another thing he does better than his first couple of years in the NHL."

"I see plays, yes," Datsyuk said recently with a big smile.
"But not three plays ahead. ... Two, maybe."

"Henrik, he's a complete player," Holland said. "He's got great hands, great instincts, he's great in traffic and he really sees the ice well. With both of them, what I see is a new maturity and confidence to go along with their dedication and determination to work harder to be better. Over the years, I've seen a lot of great players who don't work hard enough to be better. I always tell our scouts, 'Tell me when a smaller guy shows you he can do it and when a bigger guy shows you he can't.'"

You could say that Zetterberg, one year after playing for Timra in the Swedish Elite League during the NHL lockout and leading that league in scoring with 50 points (19 goals, 31 assists) in 50 games, is grabbing the most attention so far this season.

There's no exaggeration about the skill of players like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, who make those plays, those shots while at a high speed, sort of like what has made Colorado's Joe Sakic so good for so long. It's their balance on skates, the strength in their legs and the creativity in their minds that make them so entertaining to watch. It's those dazzling one-on-one moves that make opponents back off for fear that they might actually look silly if they get beat.

Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are young and they like life in the fast lane. Speed. Excitement. A challenge on the ice.

"I think we both like to see the challenge of competition at a fast pace," Zetterberg said. "You should see how big Pavel's eyes get when the action gets fierce. Mine probably do, too. Clearly, we both see a lot of the same things on the ice and wonder how we can translate that into making something happen out there."

Wonder? It's precision, Henrik. We've seen it before with guys like Manning and Marvin Harrison for years, with Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri ... and a few others.

Just let us sit back and wonder. Let us enjoy what amazing thing is going to happen next.

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