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Protect the puck around these thieves

by Brad Holland / NHL.com
In 2005-06, the NHL instituted a comprehensive, League-wide initiative to record a wide array of stats in an effort to better quantify a player's accomplishments.

The results of this initiative are found in NHL.com's statistical engine, where you'll find these stats under the drop-down menu entitled "HITS -- Players."

Under this category, an NHL fan can find countless hockey statistics: hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, face-off comparisons, shots, shooting percentage and more.

The takeaways stat is one of these modern statistics that has begun to produce a new appreciation for a previously unheralded skill: stealing pucks from an opposing player.

Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk has led the League for the past two seasons, and the shifty Russian forward is quickly developing a name for himself as a threat both with and without the puck.

Like hits, tipped pucks, blocked shots and faceoffs, takeaways encompass their own sort of art form, and the masters each have a unique style. Datsyuk is the emerging medium's Picasso, its Hemingway; a modern-day puck-stealing Michelangelo, but there are a number of others who are looking to unseat the reigning champion.

Here is NHL.com's list of top "puck thieves" in the NHL, with a little glimpse into what makes each practitioner such an artist at one of the game's most difficult skills.

Todd White, Atlanta Thrashers
78 takeaways, 27 giveaways

White spent his first few full NHL seasons establishing himself as a good second-line scoring threat on a very deep team Ottawa Senators team. Then, for the past two seasons, he enrolled in the Jacques Lemaire School of Hockey, learning to develop his defensive game along with his offense. He then brought that complete game approach along with him to Atlanta, where his 78 takeaways ranked third in the League behind only the Red Wings' Datsyuk and Stars' Mike Modano. White's smarts are his greatest asset in stealing pucks, and a very quick stick that will leave more than one opponent in the coming season wondering how the puck he thought he was carrying simply disappeared.

Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
59 takeaways, 21 giveaways

Koivu enjoyed the finest season of his young career in 2007-08, and looked to be on pace for career-best numbers in most statistical categories before an injury sidelined his breakout campaign. His 59 takeaways were put up in only 57 games, putting him on a full-season pace of about 85 takeaways if projected over a full 82 games. Much like Datsyuk, Koivu relies on his speed, stick skills and sense of deception to lift pucks from opposing players, and the departure of first-line center Pavol Demitra this season may mean that when Koivu steals his pucks in 2008-09, he could be dishing them over to super-sniper Marian Gaborik.

Marian Hossa, Detroit Red Wings
66 takeaways, 36 giveaways

Perhaps no player in the league embodies "puck protection" more than Marian Hossa, who is as good at stick handling with only one arm as most are with both. Usually a skill reserved for driving to the net, shielding the puck from opposing defenders, Hossa has taken the term puck protection to the nth degree. He is comfortable lugging both the puck -- and the player he has on his back -- through the defensive or neutral zones, before allowing his hands, which are quick, and his feet, even quicker, to carry him away from pressure and into the scoring lanes. Not a huge man at 6-foot-1, but one who knows how to use every inch of his 210-pound frame to his advantage, Hossa is a master puck-thief in his own right: he was second only to Datsyuk in takeaways in 2006-07 with 94, and has been among the League's top-10 for each the past three seasons. With Hossa and Datsyuk now skating for the same side, one wonders if other teams will ever touch the puck -- and just how long they'll be able to keep it, if they do.

John Madden, New Jersey Devils
76 takeaways, 36 giveaways

The prototypical defensive forward, Madden's nickname of "Mad Dog" is not just a clever play on his last name. It is instead keenly indicative of his brand of hockey. He is a tenacious competitor who plays each shift as his last, an approach that earned him the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 2001, and runner-up status in 2003, 2004, and 2008. Whenever Madden takes the ice, opposing skaters have need of concern, because he actually seems to enjoy one of the most physically and mentally demanding skills in hockey: the backcheck. What's worse (for opposing skaters), is that he seems to take as much pride in breaking up rushes on the backcheck as any offensive player does in scoring on them. It is that intensity and dedication which places him on this list, because any puck, possessed or not, is going to draw him like a fly to honey.

Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit Red Wings
144 takeaways, 68 giveaways

Finally, we come to the unquestioned king of the stealth strike, Datsyuk, whose dominance in this area is well-documented. A deceptively fast forward with inhuman hand-eye coordination and preternatural instincts, Datsyuk's ability to manipulate both pucks and opponents is truly special. What makes him even more dangerous is the fact that the Red Wings are constantly thinking offense, even when in the neutral and defensive zones, so the second Datsyuk moves to steal the puck from an unsuspecting skater, his linemates know what to expect. And they're jumping into holes and looking to start the rush before their stunned opponents even know that hit them.

Honorable Mentions: Mike Modano, DAL (86 takeaways), Scott Gomez, NYR (77 takeaways), Nicklas Backstrom (72 takeaways), Shane Doan (64 takeaways), Ryan Kesler, VAN (59 takeaways).

You can reach Brad Holland at
BHolland@nhl.com.

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