The end officially came for Pavel Datsyuk on Saturday. The brilliant two-way player who brought so much flair with his bag of tricks to the NHL said goodbye to the Red Wings after 14 years all spent in Hockey Town.
“My family and I are grateful for our time here in Detroit,” he told reporters at a press conference in a story that appeared in the Detroit Free Press. “This was not an easy decision, but it is time for us to return home.”
Originally selected by the Red Wings in the sixth round 171st overall in the 1998 NHL Draft, the dynamic Russian who could skate like the wind and burn defensemen with his repertoire of fancy dekes and dances developed into one of the finest two-way centers the sport has ever seen. He was so much more than the highlight reel goals he scored and mesmerizing passes he made that set up teammates.
Watching Datsyuk was like seeing an artist on display except he painted the ice with majestic moves and a high hockey IQ that left fans breathless. He never won an Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer or took home the Hart Trophy for league’s most valuable player. He didn’t have to. Playing for Detroit under first Scotty Bowman and then Mike Babcock, they emphasized team play using the puck possession style that has become much more popular in today’s game which emphasizes speed, skating and play making.
It was the Red Wings who started it. Long before they kept fancy statistics on puck possession, Detroit was winning Stanley Cups. They won three featuring captain Steve Yzerman and a core that featured the Datsyuk’s predecessor, Sergei Fedorov. The Russian Five included Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov. A five-man Russian unit that played together for shifts during the Red Wings’ run to a Stanley Cup in ’97. Russian hockey is where puck possession originated. If you had the puck, then your opponent didn’t.
Datsyuk debuted with Detroit in ’01-02. On what was a great team that also featured future captain Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille and Dominik Hasek, Datsyuk played a secondary role on one of the best collections of talent ever assembled. He tallied 11 goals and 24 assists in the regular season and contributed three goals and three helpers during the Red Wings run to a Stanley Cup in Bowman’s final year behind the bench.
When it’s all said and done, the ’01-02 Red Wings should feature 10 players in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Nine are already in. They include Chelios, Fedorov, Hasek, Hull, Larionov, Lidstrom, Robitaille, Shanahan and Yzerman. Datsyuk better be joining them soon. A three-time Selke winner for the league’s best defensive forward and four-time Lady Byng winner for most gentlemanly, he put together a great 14-year career for Detroit winning two Stanley Cups.
In 953 career games, Datsyuk recorded 314 goals and 614 assists for a total of 918 points. His highest point totals came in back-to-back seasons when he reached 97 in ’07-08 and ’08-09. Not surprisingly, the Red Wings won the Cup in 2008 with Datsyuk’s 23 points (10-13-23) placing second behind teammate and Conn Smythe recipient Henrik Zetterberg (13-14-27).
They defeated the Penguins in a hard fought six games. The following year, the Pens avenged that loss by beating the Red Wings in a compelling seven-game series which is best remembered for Marc-Andre Fleury’s save on Lidstrom at the buzzer in Game 7, stunning the Joe Louis Arena crowd. Unfortunately, an injured Datsyuk played in 16 games finishing with a goal and eight helpers. Countryman Evgeni Malkin took the Conn Smythe with a dominant performance, leading all scorers with 36 points.
Unfortunately, the Red Wings never got back to the Stanley Cup Final following 2009. They never advanced past the second round. In their final season in the Western Conference, Detroit fell to close rival Chicago in a gut wrenching seven game second round series. Brent Seabrook scored the overtime winner, helping the Blackhawks overcome a 3-1 series deficit. Chicago would go on to win the Cup. Datsyuk wound up with nine points (3-6-9) in 14 games.
Injuries slowed him down the last few years. Though he was still able to average over a point-per-game in ’14-15 registering 65 points (26-39-65) in 63 contests, it was his last big season. In another tough seven-game series defeat to the Lightning in the first round, he tallied three goals and two assists. In typical Datsyukian fashion, a couple of the goals were highlight reel. That’s how special he was. Longtime Detroit color analyst Mickey Redmond would refer to his deke as “Datsyukian deke.”
With rumors circulating that a homesick Datsyuk missed raising his family back home in Russia, it took some convincing from the Red Wings just for him to return for one more year.
“He was a wonderful player for a long time,” Detroit general manager Ken Holland said. “Pav is real honorable. Pav didn’t do this knowingly. Certainly I’m disappointed that he’s not going to honor the ‘16-17 season, but I understand his reasons.”
Unfortunately, the Red Wings are on the hook for $7.5 million. That is what Datsyuk was scheduled to earn for ’16-17. He’s walking away because he wants to help raise his teenage daughter from his first marriage. Wanting to be closer to home is understandable. Especially when it comes to family. That’s what many of these players sacrifice.
It was also during the 2012 lockout that he got to return home and play hockey for CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). That experience contributed to his desire to eventually finish his career playing back home in Russia. Something he will now be able to do.
“When I come back from lockout, my mind is thinking, I want to go home,” Datsyuk said. “But also I want to keep playing here. I go with my mind and be OK with another three years, but then it got harder and harder.
“Now I just think it’s not fair, and I have to go back home.”
In the Red Wings illustrious history, Datsyuk ranks sixth all-time in franchise scoring with 918 points. His 604 assists are fifth. His 314 goals are seventh until Zetterberg (309) passes him. A phenomenal two-way player, he finished his NHL career with a plus-250. Only Fedorov (276) is higher among Detroit forwards. The legendary Lidstrom finished plus-450. Among active players, Jaromir Jagr has a plus-314 ranking 25th on the all-time NHL list. If you narrow it down to just centers, Datsyuk ranks seventh all-time trailing Fedorov, who wound up sixth at plus-261 after playing for Columbus, Anaheim and Washington.
Any way you slice it, he’s a Hall of Famer. A special talent who made players around him better. He might not have the individual accolades of a Sidney Crosby or Malkin. But he’ll go down as one of the most complete and smartest hockey players that ever played. Much cleaner than most too. Datsyuk also was terrific in the face off circle going 53.8 percent over his 14-year career.
What is there left to say about a player of his magnitude? An honest player who became another one of the Red Wings’ gems after being taken late. That’s what they do. Datsyuk will sure be missed. He’ll always be my favorite player.