By Dave Waddell –
So silently does Pavel Datsyuk skate that the NHL’s best thief of the night never tips off his intended victims.
The puck is there on their stick and then it’s gone and so is Datsyuk with one his patented pivot turns.
“With other guys, you can hear them coming,” retired Red Wing defenseman Nick Lidstrom said a couple of seasons ago when asked of Datsyuk’s thieving tendencies.
“You don’t hear Pav’s skates digging into the ice. He just kind of glides in silently, but what’s really amazing is he’s gone the other way so quickly.
“You can’t get it back.”
Run silent, then run like a thief.
Leave it to Lidstrom, who never seemed to miss a detail on the ice, to figure out the sounds of the game and the dangers they reveal.
At 34, Datysuk shows no signs of slowing down even though he and captain Henrik Zetterberg were asked to shoulder more of a burden than perhaps any duo on any team in the National Hockey League.
Datsyuk finished with 15 goals and 49 points in 47 games, but it’s been his ability to play without the puck that has elevated him to arguably the best two-way forward in the game.
A fact acknowledged by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association when they announced his nomination for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, symbolic of the best defensive forward, for a record sixth straight season at the start of the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Datsyuk has won the award three times to sit one back of Montreal legend Bob Gainey.
This year Datsyuk is nominated with Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, who won it last season.
“I’m honored to be nominated with two unbelievable players,” said Datsyuk, who has two goals and nine points in Detroit’s first nine playoff games.
“Hard to say if it’s my best season, hope it’s not my last season. Keep playing and improve more.”
The slick center, who was voted by his fellow Russian players the best Russian player in the NHL this season, tied with Toews for first in the league takeaways (56). He led Detroit with a plus-21 and had an impressive face-off winning percentage of 55 per cent in helping the Wings turn in their best defensive performance as a team in five years despite the loss of Lidstrom and defenseman Brad Stuart.
Datsyuk can also count on Toews as one of his biggest admirers in the league.
“You’ve got to be aware of him,” Toews said.
“He can come out of nowhere and steal the puck from you and make a play and before you know it, it’s in your net. He’s as skilled as they come on both sides of the puck and obviously a tough guy.
“You’ve got to go out there and try to outwork him every shift because it’s tough to outclass him any other way.”
At 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, Datsyuk certainly doesn’t seem built to play the physical game. That’s an assumption that’s a dangerous mistake to make.
Datsyuk is bow-legged with incredibly muscular thighs, giving him a strong, low and wide base on which to build his core strength. While his hand-eye co-ordination and his ability to perform ballet on skate blades is self-evident, it’s his explosive timing that most surprises opponents in the physical battles.
When he hits it hurts and he does it in a sneaky way by tossing his shoulder into an opponent when it’s least expected.
“You shouldn’t think that he’s not strong,” warned Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith.
“Just watch him play to see how strong he is. Just because he’s not 6-foot-4, 210 pounds does not mean he’s not strong. He’s really strong.
“You’ve just got to watch him to see how strong he is on his skates and how good he is at guarding the puck to see that.”
Having been both an opponent and a teammate, Detroit defenseman Kyle Quincey knows which one he prefers.
Quincey admits you take a run at Datsyuk at your own peril knowing he may turn your face a shade of red deeper than the Wings’ home jerseys with the embarrassment of missing.
“He’s one of those guys you’d never think of hitting because he’ll make you look stupid by going around you or counter-hitting you,” Quincey said.
“He, in my mind, is the best overall forward in the game.”
However, Datsyuk isn’t one of those gifted players that just conjures up his magic from deep inside his creative brain. What makes him so dangerous is that creativity is combined with the work ethic and will of a technician who’ll settle for nothing short of perfection.
When you see Datsyuk unveil some new sleight of hand, it’s almost invariably been honed in practice first.
“More practice,” Datsyuk said of his secret.
“Much easy to play in game. Make special plays, it makes it easy.”
Datsyuk works on new wrinkles over and over before or after practice, often with Detroit captain Henrik Zetterberg being his guinea pig. If it can work on the tenacious Zetterberg, it’s going to work on everybody else.
“He does all the time,” Zetterberg said.
“He always comes up with something new. It’s fun to play with him and be close to him to see what he does every day.”
However, Zetterberg admits he rarely tries to steal a Datsyuk move for his own game. A man has got to know his own limitations.
“It’s out of my league,” Zetterberg said. “I’ll probably break something if I tried, so I’ll let him just do his thing.”
Perhaps the best testament to Datsyuk’s all-around game is he’s one of the few players who can regularly make the TV highlights on both sides of the puck on a nightly basis.
For Datsyuk, playing a two-way game is obvious logic and he explains why when asked if he enjoys scoring goals or making a great defensive play better.
“I’d be happy with both, follow each other,” said Datsyuk explaining good defense turns into offence.
For Wings, as well as hockey fans of all stripes, the biggest fear is Datsyuk may choose to finish out his career in Russia after his contract expires following next season.
However, Detroit general manager Ken Holland said there’s been no hint of that from the Datsyuk camp. The only discussions have really been around talking about a new contract beginning in July.
The threat of going home to Europe has proven a good negotiating tactic, Lidstrom regularly used it, so it would seem logical to unveil that option as a reminder of the Wings’ weakened position in any discussions.
Detroit coach Mike Babcock is as blunt as they come and rates the chances of Datsyuk gliding into retirement playing in the KHL after next season as zero.
“How long is his deal and how much is he going to make?” said Babcock of what he feels the only real questions are this summer.
“There’s this much possibility that he’s going back to Russia (holds finger and thumb barely apart). I mean, we’ll get it done in the summer.”