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The Third Russian

April 13, 2009
April 13, 2009

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April 13, 2009

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
2009 NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP
HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL
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EVERT AND NORMAN
  • At 54, Chris Evert and Greg Norman make each other feel like high school sweethearts, but can wedded bliss rejuvenate him enough to conquer Augusta National, the course that has haunted him?

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The Third Russian

Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin may be the MVP favorites this season, but countryman Pavel Datsyuk of the Red Wings is the best all-around forward in the NHL

"I trust myeyes to Dr. Rahmani. You should too."
—PAVEL DATSYUK, in a TV commercial for a Detroit-area vision correctionbusiness

This is an article from the April 13, 2009 issue

THE SKATING parttook no time to nail. That nifty stickhandling segment, five minutes tops. Buthis ready-for-my-close-up 10 words on behalf of the Rahmani Eye Institute(branches in Brownstown, Novi and Rochester Hills to serve you!) had moredo-overs than a schoolyard kickball game. "I still have problems inEnglish, but I like challenge," the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk, a Russian,says of a language that he treats with the same respectful distance that NHLdefensemen give him. He figures he needed between 30 minutes and an hour tospit out the two sentences that have turned him into a cult figure in Detroitthe way two Stanley Cups, three consecutive Lady Byng Trophies for gentlemanlyplay, a Selke Award as the league's best defensive forward, a plus-minus awardand one Hart Trophy--caliber season never did.

People aroundtown wave to Datsyuk and shout the lines from the 30-second commercial that isa staple on the Red Wings' regional telecasts. Detroit captain Nick Lidstromsays his eight- and five-year-old sons stomp around the house mimicking Datsyuk(and here imagine a big Swede speaking English in a husky baritone with anaccent borrowed from Ivan Drago): "You should too."

"I understoodhim, but some of my friends here in the dressing room didn't," says HenrikZetterberg, Datsyuk's frequent linemate. "So I had to translate, Englishinto English." Defenseman Brett Lebda says he was so tickled the first timehe saw the spot, he actually burst out laughing before hitting rewind on hisDVR to watch it again. "I don't know if you're supposed to say this,"Lebda says, "but I don't think Pav wears glasses."

Under gentlequestioning, Datsyuk concedes he does not, in fact, wear glasses.

Have you hadLASIK surgery?

"Why you askme this?"

Has Dr. Rahmanieven examined your....

"I hopeyou're not from KGB."

Datsyuk deliversthe line with a lopsided grin. There is something inherently droll about this30-year-old hockey imp: Maybe it is the hand-in-the-cookie-jar smile thatilluminates a face shaped like an isosceles triangle that narrows to a point athis chin, or perhaps it is his third-grader's haircut, bangs and all. Teammatesinsist Datsyuk is among the funniest players in the game, even withoutsubtitles. Just like his dazzling puck skills, his wit is best expressed inepigrammatic bursts. Like this:

Two months agocoach Mike Babcock was scribbling a line of numbers across a grease boardduring a team meeting and challenging players to guess what the numbersrepresented. Veteran Kris Draper took a stab at the lengthy sequence. So did afew others, equally without success. Finally Datsyuk piped up,"Zetterberg's new contract?" The room roared. (The numbers were the RedWings' road record at various points in the schedule.)

"I trust Dr.Rahmani," says Draper, dropping his voice an octave to mimic his teammate'stimbre, "because Pavel trusts him. And I love Pavel."

They all do. Asthe regular season bleeds into the playoffs next week, Datsyuk has establishedhimself as the NHL's most trustworthy forward. Babcock, whose team likely willenter the playoffs with the second- or third-best record, also happens to thinkthat Datsyuk has been the best forward this season, period.

THE PUCK hadrimmed around the boards behind the Flyers' net and was headed directly to aPhiladelphia player when it occurred to Detroit's Johan Franzen, patrolling theright wing, that he should probably start backchecking. Then he spied Datsyukalong the far boards and decided to linger by the Flyers' net for anothersecond or two. Why not? Of all the lessons Franzen has learned playing onDatsyuk's flank, the most important is, Expect anything. This time Franzen sawDatsyuk feint inside, jump to avoid a hit, knock the puck loose, corral it andwhistle a cross-ice pass to him for a tap-in, game-tying goal. In the press boxof Joe Louis Arena, Red Wings vice president Steve Yzerman turned to generalmanager Ken Holland and said, "In all my years in hockey, I've never seen aplayer do all the things that Pavel can do."

This is whatDatsyuk can do: stickhandle, pass, shoot, win face-offs, kill penalties andsteal a puck from an opposing player as efficiently as a jackal can strip acarcass.

This is whatDatsyuk can't, or won't, do: dance the hokeypokey after he scores. There is noself-aggrandizement, no preening. Just hockey.

Datsyuk has morethan his share of YouTube highlights—"He can embarrass you wherever thepuck is, on his stick or in his skates," Chicago right wing Patrick Sharpsays—but, of course, that does not distinguish him from other stars such asWashington's effusive Alexander Ovechkin, whose celebration after his 50th goallast month lacked only pom-poms and a Sharpie, and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkinand Sidney Crosby. Datsyuk, who has yet to score 35 goals or total 100 pointsin a season, had a career-high 32 goals and 63 assists through Sunday. He was13 points back of the league-leading Malkin and 23 goals behind Ovechkin, whois favored to repeat as the MVP.

But if you arewilling to wade a little deeper into the statistics, you don't need 20-20vision to see that Datsyuk is the most efficient—and arguably most productiveand valuable—of the Russian troika.

Datsyuk averages19 minutes, 14 seconds of ice time a game, almost four minutes fewer thanOvechkin and about three fewer than Malkin. Of those 19-plus minutes, he spendsan average of 3:26 on the power play (about two minutes fewer than the othertwo with the man-advantage) and 1:37 on the penalty kill (about 30 secondsmore). Babcock also tends to use Datsyuk's line against opponents' mostdangerous threesomes. Thus, Datsyuk not only plays less overall, he also getssignificantly fewer minutes in prime scoring time. Still, he averages morepoints a minute than either Ovechkin or Malkin.

Throw inDatsyuk's first-rate 56.7 face-off percentage, and it becomes clear that hisability to accomplish so much in so little time should get him into the HartTrophy debate.

"If you'redown a goal in the last minute, who do you want out there—Ovechkin, Crosby,Malkin or Datsyuk?" says Babcock. "Any of them. But if you're up a goalin the last minute and need to protect the lead, who would you want? You'd wantPav."

Datsyuk is not aspunishing as the Islanders' Bryan Trottier or as spit-in-your-eye nasty asToronto's Dave Keon, classic two-way Hall of Fame forwards. But Datsyuk, whohas taken just 10 minor penalties this season, is industrious, clever anddeceptively strong on his skates considering he is 5'11", 190 pounds. Histakeaway-giveaway ratio of 1.79 crushes both Malkin's (1.12) and Ovechkin's(.55). "If he scored no goals and had no assists, he'd still be one of thebest players in the league," Atlanta G.M. Don Waddell says. "He's oneof the alltime bests at playing both ends of the ice."

DATSYUK'S GRASPof defense was incomplete when the Red Wings selected him with the 171st pickof the 1998 draft, another late-round gem dug up by Hakan Andersson, Detroit'sdirector of European scouting. Fortunately for Datsyuk, he wound up with theTotal Hockey franchise. While the culture of his new country was confounding attimes, the culture of the Red Wings established by former coach Scotty Bowmanin the mid-1990s—play two ways, block shots, win face-offs—made eminent sense.Datsyuk also had the benefit of starting off on the Two Kids and a Goat Line,alongside Boyd Devereaux (later, Zetterberg) and aging scorer Brett Hull. Thefinicky Hull quickly bestowed his blessing on his callow linemates. And if Hullwas on your wing, you learned to backcheck out of necessity.

"I think hisstart here held Pavel back in the public perception," Holland says. "Hehad 11 and 12 goals his first two years. Crosby was a Number 1 [overall draftpick in 2005], and Ovechkin and Malkin went one-two [in 2004]. They hit theleague with a ton of attention already."

Maybe it was theleisurely start or Datsyuk's inability to breach the NHL's Berlitz Wall, ormaybe it was his hang-onto-the-puck approach—unlike that of the new generationof Russian players, including Ovechkin and Capitals teammate Alexander Semin,who fire the puck from anywhere. But probably the biggest impediment to aproper appreciation of Datsyuk was the elite company he kept with the RedWings. Even now, as St. Louis goalie coach Rick Wamsley puts it, "Theproblem with making [a Hart Trophy] case for Datsyuk is that they've got lotsof 'bests'—him, Zetterberg, [Marian] Hossa."

Like in an eyeexam, this MVP stuff all depends on the lens through which you view thegame.

"I've never seen a player do ALL THE THINGS Pavelcan do," says Yzerman.
PHOTOPhotograph by David E. KluthoALWAYS WATCHING Datsyuk's ability to read and react to a play has taught linemates to expect the unexpected.PHOTOSCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above]PHOTOKEVIN HOFFMAN/US PRESSWIREPHOTOBILL SMITH/NHLI/GETTY IMAGESFOR LAUGHS Datsyuk is quick with a joke, even in his broken English, but his goal celebrations are tame next to Ovechkin's.