Tondar's Daily Rant

Prepare yourself for the writings of Tondar the Destroyer, Baron of Atlanta, Rightful Heir to the Throne of Spain, from whom all babies come. As his will be blogged, so let it be done.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

JUDGING PAVEL

From Seth...

As Detroiters do, people were getting on Datsyuk for past playoff flops, where he'd be kept off the score sheet during postseasons that have been all too short.

Now, I reserved judgement for a reason. First and foremost, in hockey skills, this guy is awesome. He doesn't have the size of Thornton, the speed of Crosby, or the innate hockey sense of Lemieux or Gretzky (he'll be a star, but never a superstar), but he could stickhandle better than any of them, his shot is quick and deadly, and his passes are perfect (often too perfect). He's also a good two-way player at this stage of his career, hampering offensive rushes from behind about as well as anyone out there, and using his quick stick to frustrate opponents. And coming into his prime, Datsyuk still has a ton of upside. Steve Yzerman gushes about him. Second, I saw those playoff series where Datsyuk didn't perform. He couldn't get the puck. They'd converge on him the second he'd come near it. Datsyuk was the recipient of more grab-ass from Calgary, Edmonton and Anaheim than any other player. And I think it wore on him that he was spending every series behind pushed around and held to the ice. Essentially, they gave him the star treatment, and the "let 'em play" playoff officiating made that treatment all the more effective (just as Draper managed to neutralize Iginla and Kariya). Of course, we expected him to fight out of that, and he didn't, and it's fair to expect more than that.

I went after him once, when coming out of the lockout he said he was worth Joe Thornton money and would play in Russia if we didn't pony up. I think we've seen pretty clearly that there's only three guys in hockey worth Joe Thornton money: Joe Thornton, Martin Brodeur and Nicklas Lidstrom. Sidney Crosby will be soon. I also think it was pretty clear, after the Wings finally got him signed, that Pavel was doing what his Russian agent (assigned by his Russian team) was telling him to do. Had he engaged the services of an agent more familiar with Detroit sports, things might have been different.

The fears, of course, stem from our love-hate relationship with Fedorov all those years. Fedorov was the consummate me-star -- the guy who'd play to make his millions and thought he could expect, rather than earn, the fans' love. He contrasted too much with Yzerman, the penultimate team player, perhaps in all of NHL history. The contract thing exacerbated that. Working class Detroit sports fans seem to care more than other towns how the players get paid, and signs of hubris from the player during negotiations can permanently distance even a star from fan appreciation. Yzerman negotiated his contracts over a beer at the Pump Handle under the general understanding that the Wing wanted to pay him as much as we could afford, while Fedorov held out all season after winning a cup for a monster contract he didn't deserve. Coming out of the lockout, Zetterberg signed quickly for 4 years at a very reasonable price ($2-$2.5 million). So while we equated Zetterberg and his humble rise to stardom with Stevie Y, Datsyuk's "I'm staying in Russia game" cast him as his countryman Fedorov.

Like Fedorov, Datsyuk's highly skilled. Like Fedorov, he plays defense the right way (with sticks and hits), which is invaluable on the decreasingly rare days that NHL games are officiated as hockey games rather than Wrestlemania. But Datsyuk has Fedorov's skills, not his ability. Datsyuk has okay speed; with Detroit Fedorov was one of the best skaters in the league. Datsyuk has slighty under-average size, while Fedorov was slight above average. Datsyuk has a good slapshot; Fedorov's was great. They're both exceptional passers. They both see the ice very well. Essentially, Fedorov could be a superstar almost on talent alone -- a Vinny Lecavalier, Jaromir Jagr, Eric Lindros or Petr Forsberg. Pavel's one step below that: a Mike Modano, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Eric Desjardins, Jeremey Roenick, Keith Tkachuck or Mats Sundin -- guys who were exceptional in a certain area and whose talents made them borderline stars, but earned Hall of Fame credentials or not based on effort.

The questions popped up again right before the playoffs when Pavel signed a long-term, fairly lucrative deal (not Joe Thornton money, though) to stay with the Wings. This was right after Brett Hull said he thought Pavel wanted out of Detroit and didn't like Babcock's system. Hulls comments seemed to echo those of Datsyuk's detractors: he's a small finesse player who won't play the boards or make a hit, things Babcock stresses. When he signed the long-term deal -- in case that alone didn't put the lie to Hull's statement -- the sentiment going into the playoffs was that Datsyuk's career year had earned him his contract, and we could expect a Deivi Cruz-like downturn in effort.

Had Pavel been a Fedorov kind of player, then Hull would have been right. Instead, Babcock seems to be the best thing that could happen to Pavel Datsyuk. And if the player is allowing Babcock to develop his play, then simply put, he's obviously not Fedorov.

I was surprised when after Game 3 of this series -- when Pavel scored the game winner with 1:43 to play -- a Detroit player made mention of fans not appreciating him. Two weeks earlier, the comment might have made sense, but after the Calgary series, anyone who had Pavel doubts pretty much had them answered. It was my sense that we always knew he was highly skilled, and after the great season he had, few were really questioning his motivation, save for those who got afraid when the Wings gave him that contract. And any doubts those people might have had were pretty much washed away when 10 minutes into the Calgary series, Datsyuk led both teams in hits. From the starting gun, Datsyuk was throwing his body around like a maniac. He's been a real hockey player -- with much greater intensity than during the regular season. He's been money on the boards -- one of the few Wings you can say that about. And the opportunities he's created for himself are paying off with scoring.

The Pavel Datsyuk-is-underappreciated story is a non-starter. So is the Pavel Datsyuk-is-overrated story and the Pavel Datsyuk-is-an-ego-centric-Russian-fairy story. No, he's not going to be our captain -- Zetterberg could be that guy, once the '90s Wings are gone and the phenoms are in their 30s. But he's a great hockey player -- a star hockey player. He's intense, and Mike Babcock has managed to help him discover a much more physical game that seems to help the young star get more into the game. He could become a Sergei one day, but for now, the whole "I'm staying in Russia" fiasco has been corked. Datsyuk has a long-term contract to work for this organization, and he's showing he appreciates the opportunity. If there are any Detroit fans out there who aren't treating him the way Ken Holland treats him, they're wising up. This guy came to play, and it's finally taking his game to at or near the amount he's getting compensated. In short, he's well worth cheering for.

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