Early in training camp, as the Red Wings adjusted to life without
star Sergei Fedorov--who like fellow center Igor Larionov left
Detroit as a free agent last summer--right wing Brett Hull took
young center Pavel Datsyuk aside for a talk. For the first time
in more than a decade, the center position was a potential
weakness on the team. The Red Wings needed Datsyuk, a 25-year-old
Russian who had scored 12 goals and added 39 assists last season,
his second in the league, to play a larger offensive role.
"Sergei's not here anymore," Hull told his linemate. "Now you're
Datsyuk's grasp of English is shaky, but Hull's message got
through. Datsyuk has been Detroit's best player. The two goals he
scored in a 5-1 win over the Capitals last Saturday were his
career-high 16th and 17th of the season. With 37 points at week's
end Datsyuk led the league in scoring and was the main reason the
injury-riddled Wings had won seven of their last 10 games to
climb into first place in the Central Division. "Pavel has taken
a gigantic step forward," says G.M. Ken Holland. "He seems to be
getting better every game."
Datsyuk, who had 35 points in 70 games as a rookie in 2001-02,
emerged as a highly skilled playmaker when he was moved to Hull's
line midway through last season. This year, spurred on by the
need to fill the void left by Fedorov's departure, Datsyuk has
broken out of the mold of the classic European center. Instead of
looking to pass as the first option, he aggressively seeks
scoring chances, crashing the net and shooting the puck more than
he did in the past.
Coach Dave Lewis has rewarded him with additional ice time and by
featuring him on the power-play and penalty-killing units. The
extra work is also tied to the club's battered lineup. (Nine
regulars did not play against Washington.) Thanks to Datsyuk,
those injuries haven't hurt the team too much. Says defenseman
Mathieu Schneider, "You take him out of our lineup, and there's
no way we're where we are in the standings."