Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk
knows how to steal a puck.
He knows, to the tune of one hundred forty-four takeaways in 82 games last season. That's 58 more than any other skater, and 37 more than the previous single-season record, which was set by Datsyuk himself during the 2006-07 season.
Statistically, Datsyuk's level of dominance was so complete, that to rival it, Washington Capitals' forward Alexander Ovechkin would've needed to score 87 goals and 177 points in order to maintain the same level of separation between his totals and those of his closest runners-up. San Jose's Joe Thornton would've needed 110 assists, 43 more than his league-leading total of 67, in the same number of games.
And Phoenix's Dan Carcillo, the 2007-08 League leader in PIMs, would've had to bank almost 380 minutes to maintain that Datsyukian degree of separation, or about 60 more than he was able to record all of last season.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock certainly is. He has a front-row seat to all of Datsyuk's 236 regular-season and 45 playoff games in the past three seasons. In those 281 NHL games, not including exhibition, the Russian pivot stole a total of 315 pucks from unsuspecting forwards.
Those 315 pucks went from the opposing team's stick to Detroit's most dynamic and dangerous offensive player. From the opponent's point of view, one second, everything is fine and under control, and the next, Datsyuk is heaing back up ice, in full control, looking to make a play on your net.
In fact, it is that habit of players to relax when their team has the puck that sometimes works against them -- something the predator in Datsyuk uses to his advantage.
“For opposing players, you think you have the puck so you relax. That's when he's most dangerous. That's when you're susceptible, and that's how it leads to transition opportunities,” Babcock said.
Those opportunities can change a game. Something Babcock knows, just like he knows that his No. 13 isn't your average skater.
“This guy is a special, special talent,” he said. “And his God-given ability is beyond scary, but it's his strength and conditioning that allows him to do the things he does, because he's such a finely-tuned athlete. The thing that isn't said enough is that you don't steal pucks by not working: you have to be a workaholic. And you know what else? To steal pucks, normally you have to take penalties. He's won the Lady Byng three years in a row. How do you do that every game without taking a hooking penalty?”
Simply put, you have to be some kind of a magician.
What makes the takeaway skill so valuable is that not only does puck possession change, but the opposing team is setting up for an offensive attack, leaving them vulnerable to that transitional rush. It is the sort of thing that Datsyuk in particular, and Detroit in general, excels at.
Patrick Kane, last season's Calder Trophy winner as the League's top rookie, has seen enough of the Red Wings (in eight meetings last season, Kane's Chicago Blackhawks played to a 5-3 record) to know that they aren't a team anyone enjoys facing, mainly due to their ability to hold on to a puck, and when they lose it, to get it back again.
“Whether it's a forecheck to get the puck back or a backcheck to steal it from someone in the defensive zone, it's a key part of the game,” Kane said. “Any time you can take the puck away from the opponent and have possessions is big. That's probably why Detroit won the Cup this year. Playing against them, you never have the puck. They're not an overly physical team so you're not scared going into the game that you're going to get nailed, but you're scared that you're going to get embarrassed because they have the puck the whole game. It's not a fun team to play against. You might get 15 shots in the game.”
He also has seen enough of Datsyuk in particular to know that his talents are something special.
“He had 90-something points and he won the Selke. That's unbelievable. He's always taking the puck away from someone."
He had 90-something points and he won the Selke. That's unbelievable. He's always taking the puck away from someone. - The Blackhawks' Patrick Kane discussing Pavel Datsyuk
“It's amazing. His puck skills and his understanding of what opposing players are going to do puts him in a league of his own. He knows what you're going do before you do it,” he said.
Possibly a skill that can't necessarily be taught, since much of it involves instinct and “feel” for the game, that doesn't mean that one can't develop the talent and become better over time. Datsyuk himself works nonstop to develop his puck skills, and the other players on his team see that effort on a daily basis. They, in turn, work right along with him, learning from the master.
“The (other players) know there's opportunity there, but the number one thing is it shows you're a workaholic and you never give up on any 50/50 pucks. That's a direct message to the rest of the team that they better get to work, and that's what leadership is,” he said.
In fact, Before and after Red Wing practices, the players are allowed to skate around and work on their own skills, and Babcock has noticed that one of his younger players, Valtteri Filppula
, has been following Datsyuk around the ice during these sessions while the veteran skater runs mini-clinics in stick, puck, and hand-eye skills.
“He and Filppula work together every day, pulling pucks off the wall, knocking down pucks, stealing pucks off each other: they play keep-away like you can't believe,” Babcock said.
Almost unquestionably the best in the world in stick- and puck-skills, and Datsyuk still works harder than anyone else in the league. His efforts have produced amazing results, to the tune of a 225% increase in his takeaway totals in only three seasons.
Which begs the question: just how good is this guy going to get?