It might seem a bit surprising, but the Detroit Red Wings
-- the NHL franchise once famous for its contingent of Russian players -- have had only one player from that country on their roster during the past four seasons.
The lone Russian on the Red Wings has an interesting take on why this has been the case.
"Yeah, but maybe it is (general manager Ken Holland) knows me and doesn’t want to sign any more Russian guys," Pavel Datsyuk
said with his typical dead-pan humor.
This was just a glimpse of Datsyuk's personality, because everyone associated with the NHL knows if Holland could find more players like the sublimely talented center, he would acquire them in bulk.
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It is that humor, as well as Datsyuk's thoughtful answers about a variety of topics, that stand out after spending just a few minutes with him. He may be polite, unassuming and even a bit shy at first, but, on the ice, Datsyuk is entrenched as one of the sport's biggest superstars.
Last season was not his finest statistically, as injuries kept him out of 26 games, but he still managed 59 points in 56 games and retained his standing as maybe the most complete player in the sport.
"I think when he's at the top of his game he might be one of the best or the best player in the game. He's a guy that when he's on TV, other players stop and watch," Chicago's Patrick Kane
said. "I think he does everything well. He's unbelievable with the puck, and he can make a lot of people look stupid. He's great defensively, too. He strips pucks a lot. He's so tough to play against because he's so good defensively, but at the same time he can make you look so bad when he has the puck."
Added Washington's Alex Ovechkin
: "He's that kind of guy who has great skill and is fun to watch. He is a great defensive player and a great offensive player. It is a great challenge for forwards and defensemen to play against him."
Ovechkin had won the Kharlamov Trophy, which is awarded by a vote of the NHL's Russian players, to the top Russian player in the NHL, in each of his first five seasons in the League, but Datsyuk claimed the award for the first time after last season.
For every YouTube-worthy highlight on offense, there are moments in every game where Datsyuk makes a play defensively that most forwards either can't or won't be able to copy. He is one of the most talented offensive players in the world, and yet he's even better on defense. Datsyuk had won the Selke Trophy three straight times and likely would have made it four had he not missed so much time last season.
"This is when I come here. Every coach I work with for the Red Wings, they say, 'You OK with offense but you need more defense,'" Datsyuk said. "The faster you are good on defense, the more time you have on offense. This is what they teach me, and they just spend lots of time with me just teaching me how important it is on defense."
Part of Datsyuk's wizardry also comes in part from being an avid soccer player growing up. He plays and thinks like a creative midfielder would in soccer, dribbling around and through opponents while making passes with angles into openings other players might not see.
"I still keep playing soccer. It has helped me a lot," Datsyuk said. "It keeps me in shape and it is a similar game. It is not a personal game -- it is more of a team game, and when you play with friends it is more fun, more motivation. It is more together."
"I think when he's at the top of his game he might be one of the best or the best player in the game. He's a guy that when he's on TV, other players stop and watch." -- Patrick Kane on Datsyuk
There will be something of an adjustment period for Datsyuk and his Red Wings this season, as more members of the previous era retired this summer -- defenseman Brian Rafalski
, center Kris Draper
and goaltender Chris Osgood
They joined other players like Kirk Maltby
and Darren McCarty
who have been critical parts of Detroit's incredible success the past 15-plus years who are no longer with the club. Nicklas Lidstrom
and Tomas Holmstrom
have returned for at least one more season, but Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg
are close to being the elder statesmen on an evolving Red Wings roster.
"When you play with these guys, you learn from this a lot," Datsyuk said. "When you play a certain time with them and they retire, you are feeling soon you will be retired. We miss those guys, for sure, but this is life."
This exodus of familiar teammates is not all that unfamiliar for Datsyuk. When he joined the Red Wings for the 2001-02 season, Sergei Fedorov
and Igor Larionov
-- holdovers from the famed "Russian Five" -- were there to help him assimilate with the club and the culture.
"They helped me a lot. It felt like being back home," Datsyuk said. "They helped me with everything that I needed and they give me lots of experience. I just did not have any problems, but I only had one problem -- when they left, I was alone and had a tough time. Thankfully the guys understand my situation and everybody helped me."
Center - DET
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 59
SOG: 137 | +/-: 11
This might be a transition season for some franchises in a similar situation, but that's not the way forward for the Red Wings. Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom still give the club plenty of world-class talent, and Holland has several million dollars of cap space to play with -- a scary thought for other GMs around the League.
Expect Datsyuk to again approach 90 points and play elite defense provided he stays healthy, and to contend for numerous postseason awards. Expect the Wings to compete for another Central Division title and the top seed in the Western Conference. Also expect more witty comments from Datsyuk, whether they're in Russian or English, and for him to continue to command the highest levels of respect from his peers.
"He's a great guy," said Ovechkin. "We are good friends and we spend time together if we have a chance. You have to get to know him to understand some of his jokes."