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100 Greatest Players

Pavel Datsyuk: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Two-way player with highlight-reel moves won Stanley Cup twice, Selke Trophy three times with Red Wings

by Stu Hackel / Special to

Here's how you know a player is extra special: His name inspires an adjective. And in the first decade of the 21st Century, amazing plays became "Datsyukian." 

There were Datsyukian dekes, (coined by Red Wings announcer Ken Daniels), and Datsyukian goals and Datsyukian passes and Datsyukian dangles and Datsyukian backchecks and Datsyukian steals of the puck.


Video: Pavel Datsyuk won Stanley Cup twice with Red Wings


"Datsyukian" even earned a place on Its meaning? "When your moves are so amazingly beyond reason, the only way to describe them is Datsyukian." Here's its example: "Check out Phil on the dance floor … he sure has some Datsyukian dance moves."

The original Datsyuk, of course, performed his wizardry on the ice sheets of the NHL, not at the disco, and what he did with pucks, sticks, skating and vision made you distrust your own eyesight.

He was the Detroit Red Wings' "Magic Man," Pavel Datsyuk

"Well, you can just go online and watch his goals and say, 'Wow,'" Washington Capitals forward and Russian national team linemate Alex Ovechkin said. "He has tremendous skills and I think he's one of the best puck-controllers in the League. He's fun to watch."


Games: 953 | Goals: 314 | Assists: 604 | Points: 918


Ovechkin was right: Datsyuk was great fun and -- like the entry -- his wonderfully creative in-game maneuvers also found a home in cyberspace, starting in YouTube's early days. Those Datsyukian videos motivated a younger generation to develop its own YouTube-worthy tricks on the practice rink, in part -- if not entirely -- influenced by Detroit's No. 13.

His value to the Red Wings surely went well beyond viral video clips.

"What do you need -- a goal, a penalty kill, a faceoff win, a great takeaway, even a hit? Pav does anything at any time as well as anyone in the game," Detroit general manager Ken Holland told Sports Illustrated.

A chorus of Red Wings regularly sang the center's praises. Hall of Famer Brett Hull, his linemate for three seasons, said, "He's the smartest player I've ever played with."

Mike Babcock, who coached him for 10 seasons in Detroit, called him "the best two-way player in the world, for sure. There's other guys who check close to as good, but no one does both as good. He is a gifted, gifted guy who has the skill to wow you and the determination to shut you down."

Marian Hossa, a Red Wings teammate for one season, called Datsyuk "a great passer. He always gets the puck to you. You just have to make sure you get open. You don't even have to say anything, he sees you even when you're behind him. Basically, you just get ready for the shot."

"He's the most exciting 1-on-1 player in the world," Holland said.

He was just as creative playing defense as he was on offense. No one was better at sneaking up on an opposing puck-carrier, often from behind, and swiping the disc, instantly transitioning his team in the other direction, frequently on an odd-man rush or breakaway.

Then he'd put the most famous Datsyukian deke on the poor goaltender and deposit the puck behind him. Words are insufficient in describing the deke, but after going forehand, then backhand, while on the backhand he'd pull the puck backward, toward his skates, away from the goalie, who would be fooled into believing the puck was headed in the other direction. Most of the net would become unguarded.

Video: Pavel Datsyuk's dazzling deke fools Turco

Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers tried to teach himself the move but told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016, "It was just so hard to do. It took me a while to get it. The things he does out there are pretty amazing."

Datsyuk would experiment after practice developing new sleight-of-hand tricks with the puck, his teammates serving as an audience. No one could predict what he'd do next, not even Datsyuk. "I don't know all the moves myself," he said, hinting that much of it was improvisational. Naturally, opponents had no idea what was coming either.

"It is fun to watch him but not fun to play against him," veteran NHL defenseman Keith Yandle said.

"You know, when they hit and check me they don't feel sorry," Datsyuk told Sovietsky Sport. "So it's my revenge."

Datsyuk amassed a pile of hardware during his 14 NHL seasons. Most important, as a team-first guy, were the two Stanley Cup championships he won with Detroit -- in his rookie season, 2001-02, as an up-and-coming player on a star-filled team, and in 2007-08, when he, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall were the club's soul.

His two-way play earned him the Selke Trophy three times as the NHL's best defensive forward, and he won the Lady Byng Trophy four times for sportsmanship, a testament to his ability to play tough but clean.

He won or tied for Detroit's scoring lead six consecutive seasons (2003-10) and twice was among the NHL's top five scorers, with consecutive 97-point seasons in '07-08 and '08-09. In 953 career games, he had 314 goals and 604 assists. He had another 42 goals and 71 assists in 157 playoff games.

But Datsyuk's brilliance was never about numbers. "He's a player who probably doesn't fulfill his offensive potential because he's so committed defensively," Holland said in the book "100 Things Red Wings Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" by Kevin Allen and Bob Duff. "He's as hard on the backcheck as he is chasing the puck on offense. His hockey IQ is off the charts. He has incredible will and determination. He's irreplaceable."

"If he scored no goals and had no assists, he'd still be one of the best players in the League," Don Waddell, then the Atlanta Thrashers GM, told Sports Illustrated. "He's one of the all-time best at playing both ends of the ice."

That 200-foot talent placed him in the debate over who was the NHL's best player of the new millennium. Was it Datsyuk, Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin or Sydney Crosby? The other three routinely outscored him, but his coach had no doubt.

 Video: Pavel Datsyuk dazzles coast-to-coast

"If you're down a goal in the last minute, who do you want out there: Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin or Datsyuk?" Babcock said. "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."

After crunching some numbers, Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber determined late in the 2008-09 season that Datsyuk, though he played fewer power-play minutes and was used often against top opposition forwards -- and thus got "significantly fewer minutes in prime scoring time" -- still was averaging more points per minute than either Ovechkin or Malkin.

Datsyuk was born July 20, 1978, in the large Soviet Union city of Sverdlovsk, now called Yekaterinburg, about 900 miles east of Moscow. His parents died when he was in his teens and he threw himself into sports, mostly hockey and soccer, playing for various Yekaterinburg clubs. "He learned to anticipate hockey moves by playing chess several hours a week, and he developed outstanding balance and his ability to control pucks with his skates by playing ice soccer," Brian Cazeneuve wrote in Sports Illustrated.

He was never particularly big nor prolific and he went unnoticed by NHL scouts in his first two draft-eligible years. But in 1997, Red Wings scout Hakan Andersson stumbled on him while evaluating another player, impressed by the 19-year-old Datsyuk's over-the-top efforts at backchecking and breaking up plays.


That accidental discovery led to his being selected in the sixth round (No. 171) of the 1998 NHL Draft, which Datsyuk -- still small at 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds and playing in obscurity for Yekaterinburg -- initially believed was some sort of mistake. Detroit let him develop for two more years in Russia before bringing him over in 2001. He'd grow to 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds.

"When he came to the rookie camp, he was a little bit older than the other guys," said Scotty Bowman, Datsyuk's coach with the Red Wings his rookie season. "He was quiet, very shy. But he was so good. He was really strong on his stick. Nobody could take the puck off him.

"We couldn't wait to get him in the big camp. We were licking our chops," Bowman said with a laugh.

Datsyuk's transition to North America and the NHL -- both on and off the ice -- was eased by Igor Larionov. The veteran Russian center helped sharpen Datsyuk's defensive game, get him acclimated to a new culture and acquire some English facility. "Igor really saw his future greatness," Bowman said.

Then, during the season, Bowman put Datsyuk between Brett Hull and Boyd Devereaux, a threesome Hull, entering his late 30s, dubbed "The Two Kids and a Goat Line." The three clicked because, as Holland said, "Boyd brought the legs, Pavel was the brains and Brett was the finisher." They played an integral part of the Red Wings' 2002 Cup championship.


The gregarious Hull not only encouraged Datsyuk on and off the ice, giving him confidence, but he talked him up to anyone who'd listen, drawing attention to his marvelous skills. Red Wings observers believed Hull helped bring Datsyuk out of his shell.

By 2006, after Steve Yzerman, Fedorov and Larionov left the scene, Datsyuk took a more central role and grew comfortable enough to be a leader in Detroit. His everyday work ethic served as a model for teammates, and his English became good enough for him to drop quick, dry, self-deprecating one-liners, earning a stealth reputation as one of the funniest Red Wings.

Asked about winning the Lady Byng, he'd reply, "I like the ladies." Regarding being drafted by the Red Wings, he'd say, "I thought I was drafted into the Russian Army." His reaction to Babcock saying the other Red Wings got more space when he was on the ice? "I think he meant that I am really small so there is more room for bigger guys." How did he develop into such a great puck-handler? "Maybe because I'm not strong," he'd say. Then Datsyuk might smile what Farber called his "hand-in-the-cookie-jar smile that illuminates a face shaped like an isosceles triangle that narrows to a point at his chin."

Though a year remained on his contract, Datsyuk returned to Russia after the 2015-16 season, and Holland said: "He was a wonderful player for a long time. I don't have any hard feelings, not towards Pav. He gave us 14 years of incredible hockey. He never complained. He just played hard."

It had been a Datsuykian career.


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