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DETROIT — Pavel Datsyuk learned how to dangle the puck on his stick and snatch it away from others as a kid.
“In Russia, we had tough times. Only one puck,” he said. “I always wanted the puck, so I learn how to keep it and make space and get puck when other guy has it.”
The Detroit Red Wings star learned his craft well, making him one of the best two-way players in NHL history. He was named a finalist for the Selke Trophy on Wednesday with Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews.
Datsyuk has a chance to earn the award that honors the league’s NHL’s best defensive forward a fourth straight time. He became the first player to win it three years in a row since Bob Gainey’s four-peat from 1978 to 1981 after the inception of the trophy.
“Every year, it gets harder and harder,” Datsyuk said.
Detroit drafted Datsyuk 171st overall in 1998 and he has turned out to be a late-round steal.
After helping the Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup as a role-playing rookie in 2002, he has averaged more than a point per game. The puck looks like it’s on a string when Datsyuk has it as he sometimes skates circles around world-class athletes. He entertains Motor City fans perhaps as well as any athlete since Barry Sanders stopped running for the Lions in 1998.
“I heard he was one of the best,” Datsyuk said.
Datsyuk would never publicly say he’s great. He doesn’t even acknowledge he’s in the same class of stars from his country such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
“I’m still not a Russian star,” Datsyuk said. “I am OK.”
When the 2014 Winter Olympics are played in his native country, the NHL labor situation won’t be the only thing possibly preventing him from enjoying the experience if you believe his modesty.
“I think it will happen and we will have the same NHL break like last year in Vancouver to let the best players play,” Datsyuk said. “But I will be 35. Who knows? Maybe I not make the team.”
His teammates laugh at Datsyuk’s humbleness.
Even though Henrik Zetterberg is regarded as one of the top players in the world, he said it would be “impossible” to duplicate Datsyuk’s deft moves.
“There should be a warning sign every game, ‘Don’t try to do what he does,’” Zetterberg said. “All the great players — Lemieux, Gretzky, Forsberg, Crosby — get that extra second of space because of respect. If you don’t give them that, they make you look bad.”
Despite a relatively small 5-foot-11, 197-pound body, Datsyuk has been very durable during his nine-season career. This year, though, he played a career-low 56 games because of injuries after averaging 81 games the previous three seasons.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said the time Datsyuk missed is the only factor that could prevent him from a Selke four-peat.
“I think he’d win it hands down if he played all the games,” Babcock said.
Datsyuk was productive when he played — 59 points — in the fourth year of his seven-year deal worth nearly $47 million. He was as dazzling as ever, flashing skills Nicklas Lidstrom hasn’t seen anyone approach in the last two decades.
“The only guy close was Sergei Fedorov, who could fly and stick handle at the same time, but he didn’t have the slick stops and starts with the puck and two guys on his back like Pav,” Lidstrom said. “He’s so creative with the puck and he’s so sneaky without it.
“I don’t think there’s ever been anyone quite like him. He’s lot of fun to watch.”