Pavel Datsyuk comes by his “Magic Man” nickname honestly.
The center made some of the best professionals in the world look like rank amateurs during a sterling 14-year NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings.
But the beguiling Russian has most of us fooled still.
When asked to identify Datsyuk’s signature skill, most hockey fans, players and coaches would point to DET13’s otherworldly stick skills and creativity.
Yet Datsyuk’s greatness actually stems from his intuitive understanding of math.
As I described in Lessons from The Queen’s Gambit, a puck carrier can choose to accept defensive pressure from five distinct positions:
0 degree (face-to-face)
45 degrees (front diagonal)
90 degrees (flank)
135 degrees (back diagonal)
180 degrees (back)
When handling the puck, Datsyuk overwhelmingly prefers to attack the defender from 0°.
From 45° or 90° Datsyuk is a difficult player to contain.
From 135° and 180° he’s hard to catch up to.
But from 0° (nose-to-nose) he is simply the most dangerous man in the world.
Let’s revisit the famous sequence where Datsyuk puts San Jose’s Logan Couture on his butt without laying hands on the Sharks forward:
It’s some serious Jedi mind trick stuff. But what we don’t see is that Couture actually plays this 1v1 correctly, up until a certain point.
Frame 1: DET13 gets a short pass at the right half-wall, and SJS39 is actually in a perfect defensive position at 90°. Couture matches speed and angle with the puck carrier. He is ready to make a stop and push DET13 into the boards if Datsyuk continues toward the corner.
Frame 2: The higher-percentage play would be for the puck carrier to cut back and away from pressure, put SJS39 at his 180° and attempt to cycle the puck to a teammate.
But remember that Datsyuk desperately wants to play at 0°. So right before running out of space and getting pushed in, he pulls the puck into his feet and cuts toward pressure. This exposes the puck to a poke check, but Datsyuk executes this surprise move with such expertise that Couture is unable to swat the puck away.
Frame 3: The most dangerous man in the world puts the puck twice under Couture’s stick, which puts the shell-shocked forward on his ass. Advantage: Red Wings.
Disregarding Datsyuk’s propensity for highlight-reel shootout moves, deft takeaways and mind-blowing passing combinations, it is actually his acute understanding of angles and his mastery of puck positioning that enable him to execute high-level plays at a high success rate.
In the hour-long video above, which you can enjoy on a snowy day, notice how deliberate Datsyuk is at getting face-to-face with defensive pressure before attempting a killer stickhandling move and sneaking past his check. You may also come to realize that while DET13’s offensive repertoire is vast indeed, he actually utilizes just a handful of well-rehearsed tricks for maximum effect.
Bruce Lee once said: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
And that’s the essence of Datsyuk.
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