By Will Burchfield
Let's get this out of the way at the top: Pavel Datsyuk orchestrated a less-than-storybook ending to his NHL career, leaving the Red Wings in a financial quandary in an important offseason. That can't be forgotten as we reflect on his time in Detroit, but let's put it on hold for the next few hundred words or so.
Because, wow. What a player. What a legacy.
What a career.
The various ways in which we can remember Datsyuk speak to his versatility as a player. There was the offensive wizardry – encapsulated in his nickname, "The Magic Man" – but also the defensive diligence – evidenced by his three Selke trophies. There was his knack for winning – bespoken by two Stanley Cups – but also his propensity to do so with class – recognized by four Lady Byng trophies.
And then there was everything that defied quantification, that resisted formal commemoration, but was no less definitive of the way Datsyuk played: his puck protection, his hockey IQ, his one-on-one persistence. Was there ever a player more difficult to defend and harder still to shake?
All of the above qualities are crucial pieces to Datsyuk's legacy. And depending on your taste as a fan, some may stand out more than the others. One may rise above the rest. There isn't a right answer in this regard, and to pigeonhole him is to almost diminish his all-around greatness. Still, for different people, Datsyuk resonated for different reasons. For me, it was the hands.
It will always be the hands.
Hockey fans like to talk about having the puck on a string. They like to praise players whose hands resemble silk. Oh, there's something to be said for skating like the wind or possessing an archer's aim or delivering a hit that sends tremors through an arena. But nothing makes the eyes pop like an impossible deke, nothing makes the hair stand up like a move you haven't seen before. And no one reimagined – heck, recreated – stickhandling like Datsyuk.
Pavel Datsyuk, as far as I can remember, is the only hockey player whose last name was turned into an adjective to describe his feats. What a Datysukian Deke that was!! It was Red Wings' announcer Ken Daniels who coined that phrase, and there may not be a more fitting string of words to hang above Datsyuk's name. It caught on, in part, because of its mellifluous sound, because of the way those words – Datsyukian deke – rolled off the tongue. But more than that, the phrase was necessary. Datsyuk's innovation with the puck demanded it.
When the Magic Man skated in alone against the Stars' Marty Turco early in his sophomore season, faked to his forehand, dipped his right shoulder, hid the puck on his backhand while dragging it into his skates, delayed long enough for Turco to collapse in a heap of his own confusion, and then flipped the puck underneath the bar, it was…what? Marvelous? Incredible? Stunning? Well yes, but no. Those words didn't do it justice. There had been marvelous dekes in the past. There had been incredible fakes and stunning maneuvers. This was different. This was new.
This was Datsyukian.
That's what it means to recreate stickhandling. First, one must envision the unseen, pushing the envelope on what's possible. And that's no small task in a sport that's been around for hundreds of years. Then, one must bring that dream to life. Datsyuk's ability to enhance hockey's repertoire, to add to its very dictionary, was unmatched within his generation.
From a team standpoint, Datsyuk's career spanned two different Red Wings eras. And this matters when discussing a player who valued the team's success over his own, who hardly smiled when he scored goals but beamed from ear to ear when he hoisted the Stanley Cup.
He arrived in the 2001-02 season as the Steve Yzerman-Sergei Fedorov-Scotty Bowman era was coming to a close, serving as an ancillary piece in the Wings' Cup conquest. Then, along with Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Mike Babcock, Datsyuk became an era, capturing his second championship in 2008 after scoring 23 points in 22 playoff games. Zetterberg was the Conn Smythe winner in '08 and Lidstrom was the perennial Norris candidate, but Datsyuk, to me, was the face of those teams. He was who you thought of first.
As Datsyuk's legacy is measured moving forward, there will undoubtedly be some support to retire his number. Does he belong in the rafters, in eternal memoriam, with the likes of Lidstrom, Yzerman, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuck, Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe? It's a tough question, one that can't be answered fairly until we're further removed from his retirement. But it's certainly worth posing.
Whether or not he earns that honor, though, there is no doubt that Datsyuk goes down as one of the greatest Red Wings ever. Within an organization whose history is rich with Russian stars, Datsyuk, it could be argued, was the finest of them all. Within an era (or two) of continued Red Wings' dominance, Datsyuk took the torch from one group of greats and helped lead the next.
And within a sport as old as it is imaginative, Datsyuk had a mind – and a set of hands – more creative than them all.
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