In many lines of work, it’s true that if you do your job well, nobody will notice you’ve done anything at all. However, that’s never really been the case in hockey, unless you’re talking about the referees.
But when it comes to debating who the best player is in the NHL today, the same flashy names are brought up time and again: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin – when his hot streak is on fire, anyway.
Not to take anything away from these three game-breaking stars of the league, but being the best hockey player means being the best all-around hockey player. Posting 100 points a season and challenging for the playoff scoring title is great, but there is also the defensive aspect of the game, something these still-green youngsters haven’t matured into quite yet.
Which brings us to Pavel Datsyuk.
“What I would consider special about him is how hard he tracks off the puck,” explained one pro scout from a Western Conference team. “You don’t have guys who are that gifted offensively who track and back-pressure like he does. For a guy who’s not a big dude, he’s probably top two or three in the league in protecting the puck and he’s the elite guy at collecting pucks out of scrums. I don’t know how he does it, I can’t figure it out, but he’s elite.”
Even though he has won two Stanley Cups, is the reigning Selke Trophy winner for best defensive forward (and the favorite to win again this year), has been better than a point-per-game player each year since the lockout and challenges for the league’s plus-minus title, Datsyuk is almost never mentioned in the debate of best NHL player going.
Part of the reason is because of the team he plays on. The Detroit Red Wings are praised for their depth all the time and it’s hard to notice how important a guy like Datsyuk is to a team that still wins without him in the lineup. The Wings were 4-3 in the seven games Datsyuk missed during the playoffs with a foot injury, but when he returned, the 2-2 series in the Stanley Cup final suddenly seemed out of reach for the Penguins, who couldn’t answer what Datsyuk brought to the table, falling 5-0 in a pivotal Game 5.
“I find it funny the argument is always Sid versus Alex and now you throw Malkin in there,” the scout said. “I bet if you polled the GMs or the directors of scouting, I bet they’d come up with Pav. The only difference is Pav is, like, 30. When those guys are at the peak of their career, they’ll want to play like Pav.”
And that’s the difference here. It took Datsyuk a while to develop into the player he is today and it will take all the stars of tomorrow a few more years to figure out every facet of what it takes – and what it means – to be the best NHLer.
Of course, if you want to argue Datsyuk as the best player in the league, you have to address his teammate and reigning Conn Smythe winner, Henrik Zetterberg, as well. However, as the pro scout told THN.com, there’s just something special about Datsyuk’s game that’s really hard to put a finger on, but separates him slightly from ‘Hank.’
“Pav collects the puck where nobody else can,” the scout said. “Hard rims off the wall that are rolling and spinning, it comes out on his stick. Four guys are battling for the puck, he’s the guy who pulls it out and he’s not a big guy.”
The Wings have been so good for so long because of all the great players they have been able to bring up along the way. Not only does Detroit have a deadly offensive system, but they also have a team defense that forces every Wing to learn a role that not only helps the team, but also rounds-out the player himself. After all, defense wins championships and you don’t have to go that far back in Detroit history to see where this development has greatly improved both team and player.
“You could bring it back historically to Steve Yzerman,” the scout said. “Steve was getting 150 points and his team was in last place, but when he was encouraged to play on the ‘D’ side of the puck and to buy into the team aspect and use the guys around him, they started to win championships. I think that’s where Pav learned.”
And Datsyuk’s play is rubbing off on the next generation of Red Wings, solidifying something we all should know by now: The Wings just aren’t going anywhere.
“The next guy they have there who’s going to be like that is (Valtteri) Filppula,” the scout said. “He’s getting there; he’s like a young Pav. I don’t think he has the same offensive flair, but he’s young and he’s learning from the right guy.”
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