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Others believe Datsyuk's magical play will make him one of best in NHL - Booth Newspapers
By Ansar Khan
DETROIT -- If former Michigan State basketball star Earvin Johnson hadn't been tabbed "Magic" more than 25 years ago, it would be the ideal nickname for Pavel Datsyuk.
"He's magic to watch," teammate Chris Chelios said.
What better word to describe the wizardry of Datsyuk, the rising young star for the Detroit Red Wings? In a league dulled down by stifling defensive systems, Datsyuk's unique skills make him one of the most entertaining players in the game.
"I don't know of a player in the NHL right now who handles the puck as well as Pavel and does the creative things that he does," Wings forward Brendan Shanahan said. "It's part of the game that unfortunately we're losing, because most teams and coaches don't allow their players to try the things that Pavel gets to do. I'd buy a ticket to watch him play."
After teasing the league with his talents for two years, the 25-year-old Datsyuk has emerged as a bona fide superstar in his third NHL season. He's capitalized on more ice time and compensated for the loss of Sergei Fedorov and Igor Larionov to free agency. He's among the league's top 10 scorers and will be participating in his first All-Star Game today in St. Paul, Minn.
Players who've been in the game a long time say they have never seen anything like him, and they're predicting great things.
"This kid is the most skilled human being I've ever seen and he's just learning the game," Brett Hull, Datsyuk's linemate, said. "Once he figures it out a little more, he's going to dominate this league like no one else in this era."
ESPN analyst Darren Pang doesn't believe that's an exaggeration.
"The upside is incredible. He can be the Hart Trophy winner (league MVP) and the Art Ross Trophy winner (scoring champ) in one year -- and you might as well say the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP), too," Pang said. "He's that good of a player."
Datsyuk pulled off perhaps the most memorable move of his career earlier this season in Dallas, when he practically faked Stars goaltender Marty Turco out of his equipment to score on a breakaway.
"He's a human highlight reel," Wings center Kris Draper said. "He brings us out of our seats as well. We just shake our heads at the moves he makes, the passes he makes."
"He might be the shiftiest, most deceiving one-on-one player I've ever seen," Pang said. "He and (Colorado's) Peter Forsberg do a lot of similar things. They use their body to lean into players while they're protecting the puck, so when you think you're going to hit them, they hit you first. And they sort of cut the puck from heel to toe with their stick-handling, very irregular."
Wings European scout Hakan Andersson discovered Datsyuk in the far reaches of Siberia, where he was playing in obscurity in the Russian Elite League. Andersson was amazed at how the puck seemed to be glued to his stick and wondered if he had stumbled upon the next Larionov. The Wings were skeptical of Datsyuk's size (then about 5-foot-9, 160 pounds) but Andersson persuaded them to take him in the sixth round of the 1998 entry draft, with the 171st pick.
"Hakkan raved about his puck skills . . . the question was, could he take the physical play of the NHL?" Wings general manager Ken Holland said.
Datsyuk has since gotten bigger (5-11, 185) and stronger. And he's learned to deal with players who try to get physical with him.
"Every time some guy goes running at him in the corner, he throws that shoulder into him and they're on their (rear)," Chelios said. "So you have to be stupid to run at him."
Coaches and teammates have always encouraged him to put his unselfish nature aside and shoot more.
"His first year (in the NHL) he tried to paint a picture with the puck, he'd want to beat somebody in the corner four times," Holland said. "Now he realizes you beat somebody once and do something with it."
Off the ice, Datsyuk remains a bit of a mystery. Witty by nature, he often engages in light banter with reporters. But when prompted for a serious interview, he'll often claim to not understand the question or he'll provide brief, sometimes unintelligible answers that attempt to deflect attention away from himself.
"I have a little bit more experience," Datsyuk said. "Teammates help me, give me good support."
He started taking English lessons during his rookie season and teammates say he speaks the language much better than he lets on, but it wasn't a high priority since he spends most of his time speaking Russian with his wife of three years, Svetlana, and their 17-month-old daughter, Elizabeth. And last season, three English-speaking fellow countrymen were always around to guide him -- Larionov, Fedorov and Maxim Kuznetsov. The three, along with Dmitri Bykov, are gone, leaving Datsyuk as the club's lone Russian, except for masseur Sergei Tchekmarev.
But Datsyuk hasn't felt out of place.
"If he were just thrown into the environment cold it would be a lot more difficult," Wings coach Dave Lewis said. "But he knows the team, the comfort level is there. He knows the system, knows the culture -- that makes it easier."
Coaches assigned fellow young star Henrik Zetterberg as Datsyuk's roommate on the road at the start of the season and the two have formed a close bond. They spend hours playing video games in their hotel room -- FIFA soccer on the PlayStation -- and sometimes argue over Datsyuk's choice of restaurants.
"He has his little sushi places all over the country," Zetterberg said. "I've had it 12 times now and still can't get used to it."
The rest of the league better get used to dealing with Datsyuk. He's the player the franchise is going to be built around for years to come.
"The expectations on Pavel were pretty high when we lost Sergei," Draper said. "Maybe there were some people who thought, 'Three years in, can he handle that?' Obviously he's answered the call."
Said Datsyuk: "I'm very happy, we play good this year. I enjoy, it's fun."
He continues to tinker with the puck in practice, and there's no telling what magical move he'll come up with next.
He really is to hockey what Magic Johnson was to basketball.
© 2004 Booth Newspapers. Used with permission
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