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April 27, 2011
Numbers On Ice
The Underrated Pavel Datsyuk

by Tom Awad

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The first team to reach the second round of the playoffs, and the only one to sweep its first-round series, was the Detroit Red Wings. Their win over the Coyotes was their 11th series win in the last five years, by far the best in the league over that time. Everyone knows the Wings have one of the best defensemen of all-time in Nicklas Lidstrom, a Norris Trophy finalist at 40 years old, and 2008 Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg. What few people realize is that the third member of their elite trio, Pavel Datsyuk, should be considered not just among the NHL's stars, but among the best players in the world.

It's not that Datsyuk is ignored. After all, the man has won three consecutive Selke Trophies as the NHL's best defensive forward, was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2009 and is often mentioned in the same breath as Brad Richards, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton and Henrik Sedin, who are blue-chip centers and bona fide stars. But despite those achievements, he is still underrated. Study him closely and you'll see a player that is even better than those blue-chip pivots just mentioned. In fact, the only players ahead of him in the NHL are superstars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Just based on mainstream stats, Datsyuk has a solid case. But he looks even better using advanced metrics. Over the last four seasons, Datsyuk's cumulative GVT is 80.8, putting him third among skaters, behind Crosby (82.8) and Ovechkin (an incredible 108.7), even though he is only 10th in total points over that period. Datsyuk's value has always been as a two-way player, and while raw plus-minus isn't the best indicator of player value, over multiple seasons, it does give us a good idea of a player's skill. Over the last four seasons, Datsyuk is plus-103, second only to Ovechkin's plus-105.

A better statistic to use is relative plus-minus, which adjusts for the strength of the player's team by subtracting the team's average plus-minus. By that metric, Datsyuk has been the best in the NHL over that time span at plus-96.6, a hair ahead of Ovechkin's plus-96.5 and miles ahead of third-place Daniel Sedin, at plus-80.2. Lidstrom is fourth at plus-79.7.

If we dig further into advanced statistics, Datsyuk's star shines even brighter. Datsyuk is seldom penalized, as four Lady Byng trophies as the NHL's most gentlemanly player will attest, but he has drawn an average of 22 minor penalties more than he has taken, which means he has contributed roughly 4.4 goals per season to his team through drawing penalties. He also is one of the NHL's best faceoff men, winning 55 percent of his draws.

He has done all this while playing in the Central Division, which has been the toughest division in hockey for most of the last three years. Unlike Ovechkin, he doesn't have the benefit of piling up points against the Southeast; unlike the Sedins, he can't dump the hard work on a Ryan Kesler. What he has had going for him is what Crosby would love to have: good linemates. Datsyuk has typically played with Tomas Holmstrom and either Johan Franzen or, when Mike Babcock really wants to roll out his big guns, Zetterberg.

Over the last four years, Pavel Datsyuk has scored as many points as other top centers but has been much better in less obvious aspects.

To a certain extent, Datsyuk's modest point totals (by his standards) have hindered his recognition. Despite hockey fans becoming more sophisticated statistically, there is still a notion that large point totals equal MVP trophies. Last season, Henrik Sedin won the Hart Trophy because he led the league in scoring, despite Crosby having a better season. This season, attention has focused on Daniel Sedin instead of Kesler, his more deserving teammate.

In the end, Datsyuk may never get the recognition he deserves. Having started his NHL career at the relatively late age of 23, his career total of 651 points is modest, and he may never achieve the gaudy numbers that would guarantee the place he deserves in the Hall of Fame. But for now, he continues to weave his magic, make Detroit a threat in the Western Conference and be one of the most underrated superstars in the NHL.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Tom by clicking here or click here to see Tom's other articles.

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In The Crease (04/27)
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Numbers On Ice (04/14)
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Numbers On Ice (06/30)
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NHL Playoffs, Second R... (04/28)

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