There remains little to say about Pavel Datsyuk that hasn’t been said already. He was a maestro at his best. Without question, his legacy is that of one of the greatest hockey players of all time. He is also one of the greater defensive players the National Hockey League has ever seen. Only two other NHL players have ever won the Frank J. Selke Trophy three or more times, and he was elite offensively as well. His defensive acumen, offensive instincts and blazing shot, coupled with his exceptional puck-handling abilities, made him one of the world’s most respected players during his time in the NHL.
He was an idol to a generation of puck wizards. Some have alleged that Datsyuk, who twice tallied 97 points in 2007-08 and 2008-09, could have been far more prolific offensively if he had focused more on scoring than defence. Hockey’s current stars are indebted to his nightly demonstrations for showing the world what could be done with a puck.
Pavel Datsyuk: Not Yet Ready For Goodbye
Pavel Datsyuk retired from the National Hockey League in 2016, opting to return home to Russia and spend his twilight years in the Kontinental Hockey League. Since then, most fans have only been able to witness his current work through the occasional highlights that appear online. Many can only appreciate his play by reminding themselves of his capabilities in his prime. There are many wonderful highlight packages online that encapsulate his incredible skill set.
However, today we will study Pavel Datsyuk’s current quality of performance in the KHL. In particular, the footage in our presentation is from Game 4 of the KHL Quarterfinals between Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and Sibir Novosibirsk. The game was played on March 8, 2020.
Current Contract Status
As Datsyuk remains away from the NHL, sometimes we forget that he still plays professional hockey and was active as recently as two weeks ago in the 2020 Gagarin Cup playoffs. After his contract with SKA St. Petersburg expired at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season, some hopeful admirers speculated that Pavel Datsyuk could return to his long-time NHL club, the Detroit Red Wings. He chose instead to sign with his hometown KHL club, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, on a one-year deal.
That contract expires at the end of this season, which begs the question of what he remains capable of as a hockey player and what his fate may hold.
Performance Record in the KHL
Since departing from Detroit, Pavel Datsyuk has continued to experience success. He was named a KHL All-Star in 2017, won a Gold Medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics with 10 points in 8 games, and has participated in the KHL playoffs each season. During the start of his current KHL stint, he played on a stacked roster with SKA St. Petersburg with Ilya Kovalchuk, who has since returned to the NHL. In the KHL, he has been primarily a playmaker, scoring no more than 12 goals in any particular season. He scored 34 points in 44 games in 2016-17, 35 points in 37 games in 201-18, and 42 points in 54 games in 2018-19.
This season, he recorded just five goals and 22 points in 43 games with his new club. However, he produced two goals and four points in four games in his most recent playoff campaign. Despite his declining point totals, there still remain some highly-redeemable qualities to his game and his degree of effort has not diminished.
The End of an Era Offensively
When one reflects upon his abilities as a player, two main attributes are usually identified: his stick-handling and defensive prowess.
As an offensive scorer, there has been some level of deterioration in his game. He no longer possesses the effortless one-on-one skill that petrified opponents years ago. He still carries the puck up the ice and controls it with poise, but the dazzling individual moments that made him so iconic have become sparse. Instead, upon entering the offensive zone, his general instinct is to drop the puck back to the teammate trailing behind him. If, while cruising through the neutral zone, there is no room in front of him to maneuver with the puck, a simple dump-in usually occurs.
Pavel Datsyuk is 41 years old and will turn 42 in July. For some perspective, most players do not play professional hockey at his age, and for him to continue contributing and entertaining fans with his presence is itself a treat. Those who can witness him play should appreciate what they still have.
A Defensive Specialist
Defensively, Datsyuk remains excellent. He has not lost much of his quickness, which allows him to position himself wherever he wishes to be. With his quick mind and shrewd ability to decipher his opposition’s next move, he can often counter their attempt to carry the puck past him. He hustles every time he is on the ice and never quits on any play, fighting through checks and traffic to force the puck out of his own zone. It is impressive to see that, on some occasions, his sheer will to compete results in him pushing the puck through traffic from deep in his own zone all the way to the offensive blue line. Sometimes, he does not have full control of the puck but will continually chop at it until he achieves his objective.
He is an extremely intelligent player. His ability to disrupt the opposition’s attack through smart body positioning, gap control and determination remains very respectable. Defensive skill continues to be his strongest characteristic. However, he now relies less on his deft, deceptive stick-handling to accomplish these tasks. He is not particularly physical, recording just 23 hits over a span of 43 games. His body positioning, though, is often sufficient against KHL-level competition, and he possesses a strong work ethic.
More Grinder Than Scorer
As a playmaker, Pavel Datsyuk demonstrates fewer creative outbursts than ever before, yet he remains a steadfast and focused forechecker. Once the puck is dumped into the offensive zone, he will track it down along the boards. This is followed by an attempt to strip it from the opposing defence. The results are mixed, although his intensity is consistent.
Once offensive pressure is established, Datsyuk will either align himself in front of the net or in the slot. In the match featured in our footage, he scored a goal as his team’s net-front presence. During this sequence, he competed for space for an extended duration against the opposing defenceman. He also recorded an assist. The play involved transitioning the puck up the ice, dropping it to his linemate and then skating towards the net. On that particular play, one of the two defenders attempted to contain him. The other defender misplayed the situation and allowed the puck carrier to deke the goaltender. However, Datsyuk played a significant role in initiating the play and providing his linemate with space.
His Usage This Season
Pavel Datsyuk is, understandably, only a fragment of what he once was. Some of the pieces are relatively intact. The once-decorated offensive aspects of his game, though, are now a part of his past. At the KHL level, he serves primarily as a defensive specialist, although he hovers between second and third-line ice time. He was the sixth-ranked forward on his team this season in terms of time on ice, averaging 16:10 per game. Brooks Macek led his team’s forwards with 18:54 per game, followed by Nigel Dawes with 18:14. Anatoly Golyshev averaged 18:03, Peter Holland averaged 17:41 and Dan Sexton played 16:33 per game.
Likewise, in the playoffs, Datsyuk ranked seventh in forward ice time on his team with 16:35 per game.
He ranked 13th out of the forwards on his team in terms of shots on goal in the regular season. In 43 games, he accumulated just 40 shots. The forward leader, Brooks Macek, by comparison, placed 160 shots on goal.
Faceoff-wise, he recorded the second-highest faceoff percentage on his team, winning 54.9% of faceoffs out of 588 attempts.
A Graceful Goodbye
There might have been some curiosity about an NHL return for Pavel Datsyuk in the past. As of this season, though, his play has not been quite strong enough to warrant such consideration. He plays in his hometown in a league where he can continue to contribute at a reasonable level. The NHL seems no longer to be a realistic option for the all-time great when one considers his role in the KHL. At the very least, if he plays in the KHL, there are opportunities when he might shine. At home in Russia, fans, who for far too long could not watch him live, can cherish his final moments of brilliance.
Pavel Datsyuk is in the midst of a graceful finish to his most exemplary and illustrious career. He was a magician for nearly two decades. If we are fortunate, there may just be a little bit more magic remaining. This would most likely occur in a league where he can continue to be a significant factor. It would certainly be worthwhile to witness one last moment of genius before he hangs up his skates for good.
When he retires, time might just stand still as fans absorb the fact that one of the sport’s greatest has stepped away.
The hockey world may not be ready for that farewell yet.