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Datsyuk is the best all-around NHL forward

Wednesday, 04.08.2009 / 9:27 AM / News
By Michael Farber
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Datsyuk is the best all-around NHL forward\r\n
The skating part took no time to nail. That nifty stickhandling segment, five minutes tops. But his ready-for-my-close-up 10 words on behalf of the Rahmani Eye Institute (branches in Brownstown, Novi and Rochester Hills to serve you!) had more do-overs than a schoolyard kickball game. "I still have problems in English, but I like challenge," the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk, a Russian, says of a language that he treats with the same respectful distance that NHL defensemen give him. He figures he needed between 30 minutes and an hour to spit out the two sentences that have turned him into a cult figure in Detroit the way two Stanley Cups, three consecutive Lady Byng Trophies for gentlemanly play, a Selke Award as the league's best defensive forward, a plus-minus award and one Hart Trophy–caliber season never did.

People around town wave to Datsyuk and shout the lines from the 30-second commercial that is a staple on the Red Wings' regional telecasts. Detroit captain Nick Lidstrom says his eight- and five-year-old sons stomp around the house mimicking Datsyuk (and here imagine a big Swede speaking English in a husky baritone with an accent borrowed from Ivan Drago): "You should too."

"I understood him, but some of my friends here in the dressing room didn't," says Henrik Zetterberg, Datsyuk's frequent linemate. "So I had to translate, English into English." Defenseman Brett Lebda says he was so tickled the first time he saw the spot, he actually burst out laughing before hitting rewind on his DVR to watch it again. "I don't know if you're supposed to say this," Lebda says, "but I don't think Pav wears glasses."

Under gentle questioning, Datsyuk concedes he does not, in fact, wear glasses.

Have you had LASIK surgery?

"Why you ask me this?"

Has Dr. Rahmani even examined your. . . .

"I hope you're not from KGB."

Datsyuk delivers the line with a lopsided grin. There is something inherently droll about this 30-year-old hockey imp: Maybe it is the hand-in-the-cookie-jar smile that illuminates a face shaped like an isosceles triangle that narrows to a point at his chin, or perhaps it is his third-grader's haircut, bangs and all. Teammates insist Datsyuk is among the funniest players in the game, even without subtitles. Just like his dazzling puck skills, his wit is best expressed in epigrammatic bursts. Like this:

Two months ago coach Mike Babcock was scribbling a line of numbers across a grease board during a team meeting and challenging players to guess what the numbers represented. Veteran Kris Draper took a stab at the lengthy sequence. So did a few others, equally without success. Finally Datsyuk piped up, "Zetterberg's new contract?" The room roared. (The numbers were the Red Wings' road record at various points in the schedule.)

"I trust Dr. Rahmani," says Draper, dropping his voice an octave to mimic his teammate's timbre, "because Pavel trusts him. And I love Pavel."

They all do. As the regular-season bleeds into the playoffs next week, Datsyuk has established himself as the NHL's most trustworthy forward. Babcock, whose team likely will enter the playoffs with the second- or third-best record, also happens to think that Datsyuk has been the best forward this season, period.

The puck had rimmed around the boards behind the Flyers' net and was headed directly to a Philadelphia player when it occurred to Detroit's Johan Franzen, patrolling the right wing, that he should probably start backchecking. Then he spied Datsyuk along the far boards and decided to linger by the Flyers' net for another second or two. Why not? Of all the lessons Franzen has learned playing on Datsyuk's flank, the most important is, Expect anything. This time Franzen saw Datsyuk feint inside, jump to avoid a hit, knock the puck loose, corral it and whistle a cross-ice pass to him for a tap-in, game-tying goal. In the press box of Joe Louis Arena, Red Wings vice president Steve Yzerman turned to general manager Ken Holland and said, "In all my years in hockey, I've never seen a player do all the things that Pavel can do."

This is what Datsyuk can do: stickhandle, pass, shoot, win face-offs, kill penalties and steal a puck from an opposing player as efficiently as a jackal can strip a carcass.

This is what Datsyuk can't, or won't, do: dance the hokeypokey after he scores. There is no self-aggrandizement, no preening. Just hockey.

Datsyuk has more than his share of YouTube highlights—"He can embarrass you wherever the puck is, on his stick or in his skates," Chicago right wing Patrick Sharp says—but, of course, that does not distinguish him from other stars such as Washington's effusive Alexander Ovechkin, whose celebration after his 50th goal last month lacked only pom-poms and a Sharpie, and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Datsyuk, who has yet to score 35 goals or total 100 points in a season, had a career-high 32 goals and 63 assists through Sunday. He was 13 points back of the league-leading Malkin and 23 goals behind Ovechkin, who is favored to repeat as the MVP.

But if you are willing to wade a little deeper into the statistics, you don't need 20-20 vision to see that Datsyuk is the most efficient—and arguably most productive and valuable—of the Russian troika.

Datsyuk averages 19 minutes, 14 seconds of ice time a game, almost four minutes fewer than Ovechkin and about three fewer than Malkin. Of those 19-plus minutes, he spends an average of 3:26 on the power play (about two minutes fewer than the other two with the man-advantage) and 1:37 on the penalty kill (about 30 seconds more). Babcock also tends to use Datsyuk's line against opponents' most dangerous threesomes. Thus, Datsyuk not only plays less overall, he also gets significantly fewer minutes in prime scoring time. Still, he averages more points a minute than either Ovechkin or Malkin.

Throw in Datsyuk's first-rate 56.7 face-off percentage, and it becomes clear that his ability to accomplish so much in so little time should get him into the Hart Trophy debate.

"If you're down a goal in the last minute, who do you want out there—Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin or Datsyuk?" says Babcock. "Any of them. But if you're up a goal in the last minute and need to protect the lead, who would you want? You'd want Pav."

Datsyuk is not as punishing as the Islanders' Bryan Trottier or as spit-in-your-eye nasty as Toronto's Dave Keon, classic two-way Hall of Fame forwards. But Datsyuk, who has taken just 10 minor penalties this season, is industrious, clever and deceptively strong on his skates considering he is 5' 11", 190 pounds. His takeaway-giveaway ratio of 1.79 crushes both Malkin's (1.12) and Ovechkin's (.55). "If he scored no goals and had no assists, he'd still be one of the best players in the league," Atlanta G.M. Don Waddell says. "He's one of the alltime bests at playing both ends of the ice."

Datsyuk's grasp of defense was incomplete when the Red Wings selected him with the 171st pick of the 1998 draft, another late-round gem dug up by Hakan Andersson, Detroit's director of European scouting. Fortunately for Datsyuk, he wound up with the Total Hockey franchise. While the culture of his new country was confounding at times, the culture of the Red Wings established by former coach Scotty Bowman in the mid-1990s—play two ways, block shots, win face-offs—made eminent sense. Datsyuk also had the benefit of starting off on the Two Kids and a Goat Line, alongside Boyd Devereaux (later, Zetterberg) and aging scorer Brett Hull. The finicky Hull quickly bestowed his blessing on his callow linemates. And if Hull was on your wing, you learned to backcheck out of necessity.

"I think his start here held Pavel back in the public perception," Holland says. "He had 11 and 12 goals his first two years. Crosby was a Number 1 [overall draft pick in 2005], and Ovechkin and Malkin went one-two [in 2004]. They hit the league with a ton of attention already."

Maybe it was the leisurely start or Datsyuk's inability to breach the NHL's Berlitz Wall, or maybe it was his hang-onto-the-puck approach—unlike that of the new generation of Russian players, including Ovechkin and Capitals teammate Alexander Semin, who fire the puck from anywhere. But probably the biggest impediment to a proper appreciation of Datsyuk was the elite company he kept with the Red Wings. Even now, as St. Louis goalie coach Rick Wamsley puts it, "The problem with making [a Hart Trophy] case for Datsyuk is that they've got lots of 'bests'—him, Zetterberg, [Marian] Hossa."

Like in an eye exam, this MVP stuff all depends on the lens through which you view the game.

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