The first nine days of 2009 have highlighted one important aspect of today's NHL: there is one player that stands above the rest. One player whose skill set cannot be equaled. One player who has been overshadowed by his talented teammates for too long. That man is Pavel Datsyuk.
Since his "wind-aided" goal in the Winter Classic, Datsyuk's name has lit up on hockey blogs and message boards across the country. He's been on a scoring tear for the past month and his shootout goal against Minnesota drew even more elevated praise. The guy is fun to watch, I know. But I'm not saying that Datsyuk has been the NHL's best player for the past nine days or even the past nine months; I'm saying he's been the best player in the NHL since the lockout.
I can already hear the "HOOOM-ER" chants coming. Yep, you said it. I'm a Red Wings fan; I love watching Pavel Datsyuk. I've been in awe of him ever since he showed signs of brilliance alongside Brett Hull and Boyd Devereaux in his first season, 2001-02. But I'm not making this claim without significant reasoning, without the proper statistics.
First off, he's automatically a top 15 player in the league. That much is objectively factual. His point totals in the four years since the lockout have been 87, 87, 97, and 47 (through 40 games of the 2008-09 season). Those ranked him as 17th, 15th, 4th, and 5th in the league by points alone. His goal production has been steady at close to 30 goals per year (28, 27, 31, and 18 already this season) and his assist numbers have been top ten in the league all four post-lockout years.
But many experts and hockey historians (is there such a thing?) will judge a player's overall skill by three categories: goals, assists, and total points. If that's the right way to do it, then I'm clearly wrong. Datsyuk is a step behind in each of those statisics. I argue however, that goals, assists, and points are not the only things that matter in a hockey game. You have to include all the intangibles (penalty minutes, face-off percentage, takeaways, average time on the ice, shots on goal, and even plus-minus ratings) to determine the best in the league. It is here where Datsyuk rises to the top.
Players that take a lot of penalties cause their teams incredible suffering. They might be good for momentum in the case of a fight, but they create a great chance for opposing teams and they're bad for a skill player's stat sheet. Datsyuk has totaled only 72 penalty minutes in the past four years combined; Jarome Iginla, Evgeni Malkin, Dany Heatley, Rick Nash, Ryan Getzlaf, and Vincent Lecavalier all had more than 72 PIMs just last season and each of them are considered an integral part of the NHL's elite. In fact, Datsyuk has had by far the lowest penalty minute total among the top 30 point leaders in the NHL each season since the lockout.
Faceoff winning percentage and takeaways are huge factors too. To score goals, you need the puck. To get the puck, you need to win faceoffs or take the puck from the other team. It's that simple. Datsyuk is among the best in both categories, ranking 22nd, 8th, 20th, and 8th in the league in faceoff win percentage over the past four seasons (his highest being 57.0%) and he has been 1st in the league in takeaways three straight years. His takeaway numbers are staggering: 370 total takeaways since the lockout. The closest person in his rearview mirror is his new linemate Marian Hossa, who only has 259 in that same four-season-span. Don't try to tell me that doesn't count for something.
I know that by now, you're probably squirming in your seat waiting for some evidence to downplay the two biggest icons in hockey today: Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. I certainly didn't overlook them; in fact, they were the main focus for the argument and I meticulously looked for any flaws I could find. As a couple of the best players in the NHL, they have very few but like the journalist I am, I jumped at the even slightest opportunity to drop them below Datsyuk.
For example, Ovechkin the Wunderkind simply takes too many shots. He just does. It might not seem like a bad thing because he scores so many goals (65 last year) but he took 446 shots last season and missed the net completely on 199 of them. That means that 45% of the time he is shooting, he could instead be looking to make a better pass or play. All the same, that's hardly a reason to drop Alexander the Great too far down on the list of top NHLers...simply one or two spots below the Datsyukian Delight.
As for Sid the Kid, he's about as airtight as they come. He's got Gretzky-vision and the ability to make something out of nothing. But while playing on the Penguins' top line has helped him create plenty of chances and points, it has also led to a lack of takeaways and plus/minus rating. Crosby's highest takeaways total was only 37, in 2006-07, and his highest plus/minus was a +18 last year. Datsyuk already has 49 takeaways through 40 games this season and was tops in the league with a plus/minus of 41 last year.
Throw in three consecutive Lady Byng trophies (and counting...) for the NHL's most gentlemanly player and one Selke Trophy for the league's best defensive forward, and the scale just keeps tip-tip-tipping in Datsyuk's favor.
So, how come his name never comes up with the Ovechkins, Crosbys, and Malkins? Well, he plays on the best team in world and is constantly overshadowed by the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and the aformentioned Hossa, who are all in that elite conversation themselves.
But not anymore. Datsyuk has reached the pinnacle. I hope I've convinced you too, but just in case you need one final note of confirmation...I'm 100% positive that none of the NHL's elite already have two of these: