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Datsyuk, Red Wings destined for each other

2/2/2004

Pavel Datsyuk is lucky.

That's right, the NHL's eighth-leading scorer and Hart Trophy candidate is a product of the stars aligning just right.

Then again, the Detroit Red Wings will tell you they kind of lucked out along the way, as well.

But if it was some sort of cosmic lottery that led to the pairing of a too-small forward from an industrial town in the Ural mountains of Russia with one of the best prepared organizations in the NHL, then both sides appreciate the assist from the hockey gods.

"A lot of things fit for him," said Detroit coach Dave Lewis as his team prepared to end a five-game road trip with a game against the Dallas Stars on Monday. "With Pavel coming in when he did, he got a lot of guidance, and I think that helped."

Lewis credits the work of two veterans -- Igor Larionov and Brett Hull -- as instrumental in helping push Datsyuk from a player who had potential to a player who knows how to use it. Larionov helped with Datsyuk's assimilation into American culture. The now-43-year-old ambassador spent two seasons with Datsyuk in Detroit, seasons that easily could have been spent for Larionov in Florida had the Red Wings not patched things up with him. Larionov left Detroit as an unrestricted free agent in 2000 and signed with the Florida Panthers, but was traded back when it was clear he did not mesh well with management. That made the timing perfect to bring the shy Datsyuk over from Russia for the 2001-02 season.

"Larionov was there as soon as he came over and he was able to tell him about the league and about how he can fit his style in with the league, how he can be successful," Lewis said. "Igor has done that for so many players, and I think he really made Pavel feel comfortable."

Datsyuk had reason to be a little skittish. While he had become one of the Red Wings' top prospects, there were many who still didn't understand exactly what he was going to bring to the team. A smaller player at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, he wasn't taken until the 171st pick in the 1998 NHL draft. If that wasn't deep enough, consider Datsyuk was drafted as a 20-year-old and had already been passed up by every NHL team the previous two years.

As one media wag put it: It's not that the Red Wings' scouts were so smart in discovering Datsyuk, it's just that they were less dumb than everybody else.

Datsyuk bounced around the first and second level teams in his birth town of Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) and it was clear that he wasn't considered one of the city's best players. Earlier products from Yekaterinburg like Alexei Yashin (Dynamo Moscow) and Nikolai Khabibulin (CSKA Moscow) were snapped up by the top league by the time they were 18. Datsyuk wasn't propositioned by Ak Bars Kazan until he was 22.

Even then, he had to rehabilitate a leg injury and only got to play 42 games in the Russian SuperLeague, scoring 27 points in the process.

Datsyuk credits Ak Bars Kazan for standing by him during the rehabilitation and said that helped a good deal when he finally landed on the Red Wings' doorstep.

What also helped was another push by the mystic forces.

Brett Hull wanted badly to re-sign with the Dallas Stars and basically waited throughout the summer of 2001 in hopes that wish would come true. But the Stars inexplicably turned their back on Hull and opted to go with Donald Audette, leaving Hull to seek a new team.

The prospects weren't good for Hull, and it took until Aug. 22 when Chris Chelios, Steve Yzerman and a couple of other Red Wings veterans convinced Detroit management to somehow put together enough money to sign the then-36-year-old winger.


Ironically, Hull said the time as a castaway actually helped calm his historic hubris. He said that he might not have normally welcomed the fact he was shifted to a "third" line with a couple of kids, but the ego-check (and the fact the move was being made by the legendary Scotty Bowman) made him give the union with Datsyuk plenty of opportunity.

"Plus, the kid was pretty good," Hull said.

In retrospect, the pairing with Hull was the best thing that could have happened to Datsyuk. Still as shy on the ice as he was off, the talented centerman was pulled out of his shell by a bombastic winger who, in a selfish sort of way, needed his set-up man to be as good as he could be.

"Hullie definitely pushed Pavel to do more, and I think Pavel probably needed that," veteran defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said.

Hull prodded, telling Datsyuk to expect more, to push the boundaries. And then he sat back and marveled when Datsyuk did things that even Hull didn't expect.

"Being able to play with Brett right off the bat, that was perfect," Lewis said. "Those two see the game differently and I think Pavel needed that to get the most out of his skills."

This season, Hull has been the one driving Datsyuk to the top of the scoring charts. While the two have been in a big of a drought lately (Hull has one goal in the past 22 games and Datsyuk has fallen off the scoring pace of the league leaders), Red Wings players say any slump will be limited.

"He has skills. You just watch him and you know he has skills," defenseman Chris Chelios said. "But the big thing this year is he has more confidence. I think the extra minutes, the extra responsibility, he's really enjoyed that."

The departure of Larionov and fellow Russian Sergei Fedorov as free agents over the summer created both a void and an opportunity for Datsyuk. The security blanket is gone, and Datsyuk now is the only Russian on the Red Wings. Then again, he's also playing five more minutes a game and getting much more time on the power play.

Maybe the hockey gods know what they're doing.

"We can play three games in four nights and he'll be working the hardest in that third game," Lewis said. "He knows this is a great opportunity and he knows we need him, and he just wants to get better. It's funny, that might actually be his biggest strength, he's one of the hardest workers I've seen."

Hey, isn't there a saying about hard work and luck? Whatever the combination, Datsyuk appears to have found the perfect home in Detroit.

"People say I play better here (than Europe), play better on smaller rink," Datsyuk said. "That is what you see with your eyes. I say maybe I play better because of people I play with."

See, even he knows he was destined to be with this team.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.