By Larry Wigge
Abracabra! Presto chango! Now you see him ... now you don't.
Even when Pavel Datsyuk is facing a one-on-two, he can be Houdini-like the way he is able to escape or elude trouble.
"The hands, the feet, the moves ... they're magical," raved Detroit Red Wings teammate Henrik Zetterberg.
Lost? Datsyuk may have once worried about feeling lost in a new country and new culture. But nothing is ever lost in the translation when describing the magical, mesmerizing skills he has.
"I think Pavel's the most exciting one-on-one player in the game," GM Ken Holland told me.
"Good hands and moves?" Datsyuk said, repeating the question. "I wasn't strong when I was young. The puck was maybe too heavy."
Not the same small, skinny-looking kid at 5-10, 160 pounds that was passed over twice in the NHL Entry Draft and was picked finally picked 171st in the 1998 draft by Detroit. The Sverdolvsk, Russia, native is now 5-11, 197. And his looks off the ice defy logic on the slippery slopes of the NHL.
"I don't know if there is a player stronger on his skates than Pavel," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "Opponents think they have him covered and I've seen him continue to stickhandle with one hand and use his lower body strength to fight through the check and continue to go to the net.
"Sometimes you can see early in a game, when Pavel's hanging onto the puck, when he's beating players and getting away from checks, he's on top of his game. On nights like this it's tough to get the puck away from him."
Stars such as Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby seemingly have the ability of a chess master, thinking two or three moves ahead of the play.
Datsyuk look at me like I was crazy. Then answered ...
"I see plays, yes," he said. "But not three plays ahead. ... Two, maybe."
But its the balance on his skates, the strength in his legs and the creativity in his mind that make him a triple threat on the ice.
With Pavel, you have to back off because you know he can make you look silly with some of the one-on-one moves he has. His ability to stickhandle is extraordinary. You have to respect the moves, the stickhandling ... and his shot.
"I was lucky," Datsyuk said. "I was scared when I first went to Detroit. New country. Couldn't speak English. Lots of stars around me. But Igor Larionov made me feel at home. He showed me super markets. Taught me how to save money. Taught me best English words."
"You could see that Pavel's eyes were opened by the NHL, he was scared," St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said.
So afraid ... that he opened the eyes of millions of Russian players who grew up watching him boggle the minds of most NHL stars.
"Boy is he shifty," St. Louis star Vladimir Tarasenkov volunteered -- naming Datsyuk as the player he followed most growing up. "He's got the best hands in the league and is definitely the quickest."
"What makes him so difficult to stop is his ability to shoot the puck on the move, a lot of times shooting off the wrong foot, when you expect him to pass the puck," said Hitchcock. "What makes him so dangerous is that he gets his shot off so quickly, even in traffic."
"Anytime you play with people that have great hockey sense like he does, it can make the game a little different," said newcomer Brad Richards. "When things are clicking, you can create a lot of ice by doing little things."
Pavel Datsyuk was passed over by every team in the NHL -- twice.
"Scouts said he was too small and maybe not fast enough to play in the NHL," said Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill, who was a longtime Red Wings chief scout. "He went through the draft twice without being picked. But Hakan Andersson, one of our scouts, saw him a couple of times each year and kept telling us this little guy was a really good player. He said Pavel reminded him of a young Igor Larionov with his playmaking ability.
"Finally, we decided to overlook the size questions. We decided that you couldn't take away what he could accomplish with the puck -- his ability to find a teammates in almost any situation, the moves that make him so dangerous in the NHL now."
"He's actually better here than he was in Europe," Montreal Canadiens Rick Dudley scout once said. "He was maybe 167 pounds then and I know I had a hard time thinking that, at that size, he could do the same things in the NHL against the size of players he would be facing here.
"The skills? You knew they were not normal -- and now they are up there in the stratosphere somewhere. Truly amazing. It's clear that he is a special, special player."
This season, Datsyuk started with Pavel on the sidelines, following offseason ankle surgery June 26. He made his debut November 13 and went scoreless in three straight games and registered two goals and one assist in his first 10 games.
But since then, Datsyuk has been on a point-a-game pace with four goals and 15 assists in 19 games. And he's doing it despite being the Red Wings' oldest player at age 37.
"He's feeling it," Zetterberg chimed in. "He's been probably our best player over the past two months.
"He's got a lot of strength ... and when skates that well he's dangerous."
"I thought Pavel was the best player on the ice," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "Any concern about where he is at, he certainly shut that in my mind. I thought he was the best player on the ice."
Datsyuk now has 304 goals and 587 assists for 891 points in 900-some games over his 14 seasons in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings and has been a member of two Stanley Cup championships, won the Selke Trophy three times and won the Lady Byng Trophy four straight years.
"It's funny," he once told me. "My first sport wasn't soccer or hockey. It was chess."
Valery, Pavel's dad, drove a van for a company near their home in Sverdlovsk. He's the one who introduced his son to chess. Pav's mom, Galina, worked as a cook for a military outlet. She's the one who would take him to the skating rink.
This scrawny kid built up his legs and lower body that makes him so difficult to be knocked off the puck by climbing the four floors of stairs to their apartment. No elevator for Pav.
"That's how I started to get stronger," he laughed. "Walking up and down those steps. Three four times a day sometimes."
Datsyuk's trademark big smile crossed him face when he remembered the old days.
He told me he wanted to quit hockey altogether, when his mother died of cancer at 46. But his father and friends talked him into sticking with the game.
"Friends tell me, 'Pav, hockey could be good life for you,' " Datsyuk said, adding that he thinks of his mom every time he plays. She's his inspiration. She brought color to his life.
It wasn't long after that is father died of a heart attack -- and Pavel through his everything into hockey.
Becoming North Americanized, Pavel would even go out on his own to the movies.
"Action movies," he said, smiling. "Car crashes. Explosions. Exciting."
On the ice, Pavel Datsyuk finally started going to the net.
"To me, the difference is that he used to want to beat the same guy three times on one play," Holland laughed. "Now he beats one guy and goes to the net. He is exceptional down low."
Not smoke and mirrors. Not abracadabra. Just a friendly wink and a nod. Sort of like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri and Datsyuk and Zetterberg.