Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.
Red Wings' Most Important Player: Pavel Datsyuk, forward
Sometimes, you just don’t outthink yourself. Pavel Datsyuk is the Detroit Red Wings' most important player and it might not be close.
The Red Wings are going to be a fascinating team this season as new coach Jeff Blashill takes the reins of a roster filled with players he had great success with in Grand Rapids. Detroit has veteran experience, but will be driven by its youth. The youth alone isn’t enough to win a championship, however.
If the Red Wings are going to break away from that large group of NHL teams in the 90-100 point range and emerge as a possible Stanley Cup contender, they're going to need a healthy, successful season from their most dynamic player: Datsyuk.
The healthy part is off to a rough start. Datsyuk had surgery in June to repair an ankle injury and the timeline for his return is fuzzy. According to a translation done by mlive.com, Datsyuk told website SVT.se that he expects to miss four to five months while recovering. That puts his return sometime in the late October-early November range.
The important thing for Datsyuk isn’t his health to start the season; it’s his health when the season is winding down.
He had five points in seven games against the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs last season, a series the Red Wings probably should have won against the eventual Eastern Conference champs. He also did it on an ankle that was less than 100 percent. If he’s healthy and producing in the playoffs, the Red Wings stack up with anybody in the East.
Datsyuk is also 37 years old. In a league in which the most productive players are in their early 20s, Datsyuk continues to put up points when he’s healthy. It’s remarkable, really. Last season, he averaged 1.03 points per game. That’s higher than his career average of 0.98.
When he was on the ice at even strength, the Red Wings controlled 59.7 percent of the shot attempts, according to hockeyanalysis.com. Among players who played at least 750 minutes, that was No. 1 in the NHL.
While his health hasn’t defied time, his production when he’s on the ice has. One of the challenges for Blashill will be managing Datsyuk’s ice time during the regular season to cut down on the wear and tear of the long grind. That started last season under former coach Mike Babcock, when Datsyuk averaged 19:03 per game, his lowest ice time in nearly a decade.
It would help the cause if the Red Wings can get off to a strong start and maintain it for most of the season, so they’re not fighting for a final playoff berth as they have been the past couple of years.
Detroit has two more seasons left on Datsyuk’s current contract, and if he keeps playing beyond that it likely won't be in North America. That’s two more seasons to capitalize on one of the best two-way players of his generation.