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Longshot Datsyuk pays off big time // Detroit Free Press
BY HELENE ST. JAMES
His teammates see him sometimes at cinemas, walking around looking for a place to sit. They call his name, signal with their arms and invite him to sit next to them. He does, saying nothing, just smiling.
Pavel Datsyuk is 23 years old and starring as the strong, quiet rookie wunderkind for the Red Wings. He doesn't speak much English, which makes him an ideal movie companion. It makes it a little more difficult for his teammates to talk to him -- only three of them are fellow Russians -- but such problems are forgotten when Datsyuk is on the ice.
For when he is playing, Datsyuk's talent shows up in Technicolor with Surround sound. The way he throws a shoulder into an opponent and then skates away with the puck, the way he goes against some of the NHL's top players without a thread of intimidation. The way he moves.
"It's scary," said Datsyuk's linemate, Brett Hull. "If there's anyone who can stick-handle as well in the league, I think you'd have to look at Alexei Kovalev, Milan Hejduk. He looks like an orangutan -- he goes this way and all of a sudden he's over there. He's very talented. Great kid, too."
Datsyuk (pronounced dat-SOOK) has scored nine goals and set up 14 in 49 regular-season games since he last played tonight's opponent, the New York Rangers, in an exhibition Sept. 17. Back then, the Wings had an inkling that he could be someone who could help them.
"We saw he was something special," coach Scotty Bowman said. "Then we decided to make the decision to keep him and just hope we'd have enough work for him."
Bowman played Datsyuk in the first four games, sat him out the fifth to avoid using him two nights in a row, then played him 27 straight games while more experienced forwards were scratched from the lineup. After a four-game break -- done partly to get in other forwards and partly out of recognition that Datsyuk was accustomed to a more leisurely pace in the Russian Super League -- he has played in every game.
Last week, an injury to Steve Yzerman created a vacuum at center. Bowman had several options, including asking veteran Kris Draper to go back to the position he had played for eight seasons until switching to right wing at the start of the season. He didn't. Instead, Bowman opted to rely a little more on Datsyuk.
"I think he just continually has worked at his game and gotten better," Bowman said. "He's a dangerous offensive threat. He's been good all-around. He's playing confidently. He and Boyd have been a good combination."
Boyd Devereaux has played almost exclusively on Datsyuk's left wing, with a number of forwards taking turns on the right side. For five games in late October, it was Mathieu Dandenault, forming a line Bowman credits with Datsyuk's development. Since late December, it has been Hull, and during that time the line has combined for 22 goals and 39 points in 16 games.
"It almost seems perfect," Hull said.
At 37, Hull is 14 years older than both linemates. He has been patient in dealing with Datsyuk, describing communication as a matter of "drawing little pictures. You don't just go up and say, 'Hey, I'm going to be here on the strong side or the top of the circle.' "
Hull, who has nicknamed the three "Two Kids and a Goat," is the line's scorer, fitting in perfectly with Datsyuk's ability to handle the puck and Devereaux's willingness to chase it down. Datsyuk and Hull are often on the same power play unit, and they have formed one of the forward pairs used during four-on-four overtime. Datsyuk's emergence made him a shoo-in when the NHL front office needed a late replacement for the YoungStars game during the All-Star weekend.
And if an injury should eliminate one of Team Russia's selections for the Winter Olympics, Datsyuk might be added to the roster. Wings center Igor Larionov said he has "strongly suggested Datsyuk be a replacement" to Slava Fetisov, the team's general manager, coach and longtime friend of Larionov's.
Datsyuk has taken all this in stride. Using defenseman Maxim Kuznetsov as a translator, he explained that his mind-set was "to be ready for anything" when he came to this country for training camp in September.
"Now he's feeling a lot of respect for coaches because they let him play more; they trust him," Kuznetsov said. "They show confidence in him, and he's very happy with that."
Wings management, in turn, is delighted with Datsyuk. At the behest of European scout Hakan Andersson, the Wings made him the 171st overall pick in the 1998 entry draft.
"Certainly, he's been a surprise," general manager Ken Holland said.
Holland remembers that Andersson made a strong push for Datsyuk, billing him as having the playmaking skills of a young Larionov. After the Wings drafted Datsyuk in the sixth round, they left him to mature in Russia. Last spring, Holland thought Datsyuk looked like a natural while on a line with Alexei Yashin during the world championships, and Holland decided to bring him to training camp.
"Still," Holland said, "we didn't know what we'd get. How he'd adapt to the quicker game, more physical play."
Right away, Datsyuk looked at home. Larionov, a Red Army hero in the Soviet Union in which Datsyuk grew up, was surprised at the skills displayed by his young compatriot.
"When I see him in training camp, I was very impressed," Larionov said. "But it's hard to make the team here because there are so many big names and experienced players. But the way he plays, he fits on the team because he's a smart player. He knows how to play the puck-possession game."
Datsyuk has pursued videotape with equal passion, often holing himself up with video coordinator Joe Kocur, a former player, after practices.
"He's always after Joey to bring up tapes of games and situations," Bowman said. "It's been a good fit for him and Joey. Joey just thinks he's superb."
Datsyuk's English is steadily growing, thanks to teammates and a tutor who twice a week instructs him and his wife, Svetlana. It helps, of course, to have others around him who speak Russian. Within days of making the team, Datsyuk had Kuznetsov's phone number memorized.
"He would talk to me on his cell phone, saying, 'I am on this street, should I be here? Where do I turn?' ' Kuznetsov said. "He spelled the street names because he pronounced them not right."
At restaurants, he would "close his eyes and point his finger," Kuznetsov said. At grocery stores, "he can recognize some boxes and names because we have them in Russia. Eggs look the same. Pizza is pizza."
When the Wings are on the road, Datsyuk rooms with Kuznetsov, and together they go shopping, go out to eat, and go to the movies. Sometimes, Datsyuk goes alone. He prefers action movies, because car crashes and explosions look the same in any language.
"He likes to go to movies a lot," Devereaux said. "But no art films for Pavs."
At the end of the interview, as he's listening to questions being relayed through Kuznetsov, Datsyuk hears one he understands. He chooses to answer himself when asked how his English is coming -- but his answer applies just as well to how his rookie season is going.
He smiles. "Best," he says.
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