.Craig Petter | May 4th, 2020
“Here he comes, Datsyuk in on goal… and he does it again! What a beautiful goal! How many does he have in his repertoire, oh my!”
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If ‘repertoire’ refers to a career highlight package of delicious dekes and mouthwatering moves, Russian centreman Pavel Datsyuk boasts one unmatched. Clips of his shootout goals, head-fakes, and takeaways have graced YouTube since kids were watching it on beige convex box computers with clunky bubbled keyboards. Pulled from one such relic where Datsyuk absolutely humiliates a helpless Tomas Vokoun, the above quote proves that even announcers adored the ‘Magic Man.’ In the video, Datsyuk swoops forward, feigns a shot with a leg kick and yanks the puck back with pure ease before tucking it upstairs. The Detroit Red Wings star had thousands of cards up his sleeve, and although he still plays in Russia, his NHL tricks merit another glance.
Drafted: 1998, Round 6, #171 overall, Detroit Red Wings
NHL Tenure: Detroit Red Wings- 14 seasons, 2001-2016
Stanley Cup Rings: 2, Detroit Red Wings- 2002, 2008
NHL All-Star Appearances: 4
NHL’s Best Defensive Forward (Frank J. Selke Trophy): 2007-2008, 2008-2009, 2009-2010
NHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Elite Player (Lady Byng Memorial Trophy): 2005-2006, 2006-2007, 2007-2008, 2008-2009
His Sleight of Hand
Few hockey players enter conversations of the greatest two-way forwards of all-time. Fewer players stake legitimate claims as the greatest puck-handler in NHL history. Pavel Datsyuk, however, made richly compelling cases for both titles.
Whether snatching the puck from defenders or slipping it under their shafts, the ‘Magic Man’ performed all his wizardry with his stick. A relentless reliance on stick-lifts and poke-checks transformed the 5’10” centreman into one of the most dangerous players without the puck in the league. He forced frequent turnovers from defencemen trying to rush the puck out of their zone and opposing forwards cutting towards the net alike. Simply put, Pavel Datsyuk picked more pockets than Oliver Twist.
Once he nicked the puck though, the ‘Magic Man’ became clairvoyant. Datsyuk was revered for his puck control, as he could dangle past a professional pair of skates as if they were worn by a Pee-wee. Some players deke, but Datsyuk just twitched. He cradled and flipped the puck through defencemen with quickness and precision, combining his skills with one of the most creative minds in hockey history. He coined manifold moves, innovating the way players handle the puck to zip by defenders and embarrass goalies all with the blade of his stick. Add his impressive acceleration and ability to catapult backhands to the act, and Datsyuk unmasks himself as one of the most dynamic finesse centremen ever.
The Opening Act
As an unknown name selected in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL draft, Pavel Datsyuk epitomizes the underdog story that fuels hockey dreamers worldwide. Legendary Detroit Red Wings European scout Hakan Andersson inadvertently noticed him while checking out another player in Russia the summer before the draft. No team executives knew his potential aside from Andersson until the draft, and Datsyuk himself spoke not a word of English. With the odds stacked against him, Datsyuk let his hockey speak for itself.
Luckily, the Red Wings roster already included Soviet phenoms like Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov to introduce him to NHL hockey and a Michigan lifestyle. With their guidance and his own irrepressible talent, Datsyuk emerged as a quietly promising rookie in the 2001-2002 NHL season with 11 goals. Fortune handed him an unprecedented set of teammates on a particularly dominant Red Wings roster too. Also playing alongside notorious hockey figures like Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, and the indomitable Dominik Hasek, Datsyuk won the Stanley Cup in his very first season.
Dazzling the NHL
Before long, most forwards from the 2002 squad had moved on, so Datsyuk quickly nestled into the role of the premier scorer in Detroit. Supported by fellow late-round surprise Henrik Zetterberg upfront, the ‘Magic Man’ began to flourish at the NHL level. In the 2005-2006 season, he notched 87 points as the Red Wings made the playoffs for the fourth time since he joined the team. In fact, Datsyuk managed to play postseason hockey in every single season of his NHL career. Imagine. Plus, that season won him individual recognition when he received the Lady Byng Trophy, the first of four consecutive awards for his sportsmanship.
Two years later, Datsyuk enjoyed a season at the summit of NHL success. A team-leading and career-high regular-season output of 97 points? Check. A league-leading 144 takeaways to claim his first Frank J. Selke Trophy? Double-check. Achievement of the hotly coveted but dramatically underrepresented Bud Light Plus-Minus Award? The sharpest checkmark every drawn. In addition to his personal accolades, Datsyuk posted 23 points in 22 playoff games along his journey to his second Stanley Cup Finals. Two assists from Datsyuk in Game Six against the Pittsburgh Penguins cemented the victory for the Red Wings, and the Russian star kissed the cup for the second and last time of his career.
While he never won another cup, Datsyuk continued to dislocate the jaws of fans with his moves and accumulate some individual hardware. He won another Lady Byng Trophy as well as the Selke in 2009, but the Red Wings fell to a vengeful Penguins roster in the Stanley Cup Finals. Aside from another Selke Trophy, Datsyuk gleaned the rest of his NHL success from highlight reels. For example, most hockey fans smiled (and the diehard ones salivated) at his cheeky chip shot shootout goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Others swooned when he tore through four different swarming Nashville Predators before slinging a momentous goal past Pekka Rinne in 2013. In 2016 though, a homesick Datsyuk retired from the NHL to play for St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL, the Russian professional hockey league.
The Show on the Road and at Home
Datsyuk recurrently served his country at international tournaments throughout his career. He anchored lines on the Russian Olympic team on five occasions. For the 2014 Olympics held in Sochi, Datsyuk sported the captain patch on his Russian national team sweater for the first time. In parallel disappointing fashion with his previous three trips to the Olympics though, Datsyuk departed emptyhanded. When he ventured to Pyeongchang as the captain of the Olympic Athletes from Russia in 2018, however, he leveled the team’s lofty expectations for success. As active NHL players did not participate, Datsyuk entered the tournament with the highest pedigree and affirmed it with a gold medal and tournament all-star berth. That same year, the Russian Ministry of Sports named him the top male athlete of the nation. The “Pride of Russia.”
The Magic Man’s Mark
If the aphorism ‘copying is the highest form of flattery’ bears any resonance, then the hockey world honors Datsyuk as if he were a prince. Many players are beloved by the general public, but few find themselves studied in the way folks pore over Pavel Datsyuk’s highlight packages. Then, these inspired minds hop onto the pond and devote hours to imitating his myriad moves.
Beyond the replays though, Pavel Datsyuk cemented his greatness on the scoresheet. Over 953 career NHL games, Datsyuk recorded 918 points and sniped 314 goals. He did not just prance around defenders with pretty moves, but Datsyuk produced. His legacy, therefore, stems from the ease, artistry, and effectiveness with which he performed. Four years removed from NHL play, Datsyuk bows as one of the most skilled puck-handlers and two-way forwards to ever grace its stage.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images