By Stu Hackel
How much will the Red Wings miss Pavel Datsyuk, who will be out for at least a month after breaking his hand? How much would any team miss the guy who is perhaps the best player in the game?
Late in the first period of Wednesday night's 5-4 overtime Detroit victory...
...Datsyuk tripped over the Canucks' Mikael Samuelsson, a former Red Wing, in front of Vancouver's net and landed awkwardly on his right wrist. Before the period ended, Datsyuk declined to take a faceoff and didn't return after the intermission.
"It's unfortunate, there's nothing we can do about it," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said of the injury. "We got to find a way to dig in, just like we did tonight to get the game done. More opportunity for someone else. We know Pav's a good player and we know he's coming back. He gets a little bit of vacation so he's ready for the playoffs.''
With a guy as good as Datsyuk out of the lineup, how far south will the Red Wings go during the next month? It's a big question because the Western Conference race is so tight. There's no doubt that losing Datsyuk will probably slow Detroit for a while, although a prolonged collapse seems unlikely.
What the Wings have going for them is four-line depth up front with lots of talent and speed. Babcock, who makes adjustments better than most coaches, has the luxury of slotting in Henrik Zetterberg, almost Datsyuk's equal in terms of all-around talent, as his top center. "Z" stepped up on Wednesday night in Datsyuk's absence by scoring a couple of goals, one to tie the game, the other to win it. Zetterberg is capable of that sort of production on a regular basis.
It's also worth noting that Detroit's impressive younger forwards Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader have been averaging less than 12 minutes per game, so Babcock can easily have them pick up some of the slack. It would also help if Jiri Hudler, who has not played well since returning from the KHL, can rediscover his game.
But even if all that happens, it's still tough to replace a player with Datsyuk's tool set. Early in the game on Wednesday night, he tested Roberto Luongo on this chance...
...which shows his ability to create something from nothing through slick skating, slippery quickness, a strong shot from distance and his willingness to venture into the teeth of opposing defenses to score.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby gets deserved accolades for his continually improving offensive mastery of the game. Crosby extended his consecutive games point streak to 22 last night and has been regularly mentioned lately as the NHL's top player, but Datsyuk -- who is not the focus of HBO's 24/7 series or often promoted by the NHL -- is actually a more complete performer. While Crosby is no slouch in any aspect of the game, Datsyuk can do more things at a higher level.
Defensive excellence never generates publicity the way offensive prowess does in any sport, but publicity does not win games. Datsyuk has no peer as a defensive forward. He shuts down the opposing team's best forwards, kills penalties extremely well, and is still among the most creative and determined offensive players in the game.
No, his offensive numbers don't always equal Crosby's, but he's not on the ice as much, either. The balance on this Detroit team, and Babcock's tendency to roll four lines, mean that Datsyuk averages a few minutes less of playing time each game. And some of the minutes Datsyuk gets are taken up by killing penalties. Crosby isn't on the Penguins' PK regularly (their top four PK forwards are Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams).
And while playing in all situations and in all the dirty areas of the ice, Datsyuk has been an amazingly clean player, winning the Lady Byng Trophy the first four seasons after the lockout. Of course, after his fight with Anaheim's Corey Perry in the Wings' home opener this year...
...Datsyuk likely won't be a Lady Byng candidate this season.
Earlier this week, Rory Boylen, blogging for The Hockey News posted a piece on why Datsyuk is the best Russian player in the NHL right now, better than either the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin or the Pens Evgeni Malkin. Boylen made a very compelling case for Detroit's great center, who has averaged better than a point per game since the lockout and also been selected as the best defensive forward in the game for the past three seasons -- as his three consecutive Selke Trophy selections demonstrate.
Boylen points out that while Ovie and Geno are more explosive offensively than Datsyuk, "It’s not always about points when you’re talking best player....(Datsyuk) led the league in takeaways by an astounding 49 en route to his third straight Selke Trophy. The only other player to win three Selkes in a row is Bob Gainey, who won the first four, and he never scored more than 45 points."
Gainey is a Hall of Famer on the strength of his Selke dominance, and the great Soviet hockey coach Viktor Tikhonov famously said after watching the Canadiens star check, skate and negate the world's best during the 1981 Canada Cup tournament, "I consider Gainey the world's best all-around player."
Boylen continues, "While the argument can certainly be made Datsyuk has better support players than his counterparts, it should be noted the Red Wings have been through a bit of a transitional period themselves. In the past six years, with stars aging and new players coming along, the Wings haven’t missed a step thanks largely to the consistency of players such as Datsyuk."
"Watch a Red Wings game and you’ll see the 5-foot-11 Datsyuk protecting the puck from two or even three defenders, going into the corner and coming out with possession nine times out of 10 and patiently weaving through traffic until he has a good shot on net or sees an opportunity to pass away from traffic," Boylen adds, quite rightly. You'll also see him backcheck as well as anyone in the league, steal the puck and make seamless transitions from defense to offense. He can even take a pinching defenseman's spot on the blue line and cut down an enemy rush.
So why restrict Datsyuk's ranking as the best to just his countrymen? Why not make the comparison with all players in the NHL regardless of nationality, including Crosby? The same arguments Boylen used comparing Datsyuk to other Russians can be made comparing him to Crosby -- and anyone else in the NHL.
Certainly, no one is producing offense right now the way Crosby is and he brings his "A" game to the rink every night. One of the oldest distinctions in team sports is that between a most valuable player and the best player. It would be tough not to select Crosby as the first half's Hart Trophy-winner as the NHL's MVP this season. But when it comes to determining the best all-around player -- regardless of nationality -- Datsyuk is Bob Gainey plus with a world-class offensive dimension.
What could be better than that?