By Way of Example
Sometime in my history as a hockey fan I latched on to the idea that among other things, you need two elite centers to win the Stanley Cup. Whether that's actually true or not has never really mattered to me - there are so many ready examples such as Sakic/Forsberg, Yzerman/Fedorov, and Horcoff/Peca (wtf, we didn't win last year? That Roloson guy was unbeatable!) that I have just taken it as a myth I don't care to challenge.
As such, I have watched with great fascination as the Detroit Red Wings have seamlessly gone from a contender on the backs of Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov (with help from Lidstrom, insane depth, and goaltending) to a contender on the backs of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg (same help with a little less depth). Between their first 90's Cup and today Fedorov has signed elsewhere, Yzerman broke into several pieces, and both players obviously declined but at no time did Detroit ever fail to look like a team that could compete for a championship.
Somewhere along the line these two kids emerged, drafted in the 19th round, developed faster than *insert creepy joke here*, and became top flight NHL forwards. How did Detroit do it? The following gargantuan post includes a brief look at the career of each, a look at some of the timing elements involved, and the eventual obvious conclusion that the Oilers made a terrible mistake keeping Schremp in the AHL this season. For its length, however, it's not as thorough as I had hoped so wherever the blanks can be filled by those more knowledgeable than myself, I would greatly appreciate it. Here goes:
Pavel Datsyuk: (on left)
Drafted at age 19 years, 11 months in June 1998.
Datsyuk played in the Russian Elite League until then without putting up dominant numbers. One would have to assume he had a great camp.
I don’t have time on ice handy for this season but with all of Shanahan, Federov, Hull, Robitaille, Yzerman, and Larionov still at high levels on that Red Wing team one can safely assume Datsyuk was not playing a top 6 role. This would make his 0.5 pts/game very impressive and especially so considering his passing through two drafts and his previously unspectacular point production in Russia.
Edit: Datsyuk played on a line with Brett Hull and Boyd Deveraux that season, according to Wikipedia. I imagine this was a soft minutes line but am curious as to why Hull was kept outside the top 6.
Pavel Datsyuk’s second NHL season (age 24)
Zetterberg played in the Swedish Elite League until then, with tremendous development grossly outpacing the expectations put upon a 7th round draft pick.
Red Wing Forwards in 2002-03, sorted by ATOI:
Sergei Federov, Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Kris Draper, Henrik Zetterberg, Kirk Maltby, Steve Yzerman*, Pavel Datsyuk, Igor Larionov, Darren McCarty, Luc Robitaille, Tomas Holmstrom, Boyd Deveraux.
*Yzerman missed most of the season with injuries.
http://espn.go.com/nhl/s/rookie2003/march.html is an article that states Datsyuk (C) and Zetterberg (LW) played together on a line with Brett Hull. Based on their offensive production, ATOI, and common sense, this is a line that had the offensive skills and savvy to soundly thrash lesser opposition. This was an excellent rookie season for Zetterberg and a solid sophomore effort for Datsyuk.
"I know that I'm in a great situation and I want to stay there," says Hull. "I look at Hank (Zetterberg), and I see a first-year guy that has the skill, the composure, the savvy of the game."
This is where things get interesting. Sergei Federov left Detroit for a big payday from the Ducks heading into the 03/04 season. This left a monstrous hole in the forward corps and allowed Datsyuk and Zetterberg the opportunity to establish themselves as top six forwards. Note Datsyuk’s significant drop in +/-.
Pavel Datsyuk’s third NHL season (age 25)
Datsyuk played the majority of this season and posted impressive offensive totals. His +/- suffered, likely to his increased role in terms of match-ups and it is odd that there is such a discrepancy between his rank in that stat and Zetterberg’s. Despite all accounts saying that they played together they may have spent some time apart but it would be especially interesting if Datsyuk’s +/- fell when Zetterberg went down with injury.
Henrik Zetterberg’s second NHL season (age 23)
Zetterberg missed playing time due to a broken right leg but saw his points per game and his plus rating rise. This is where the first quotes about him being a solid two-way player begin to emerge.
Red Wing Forwards in 2003-04, sorted by ATOI:
Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Brendan Shanahan, Kris Draper, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Ray Whitney, Robert Lang*, Kirk Maltby, Steve Thomas, Tomas Holmstrom, Darren McCarty, Mark Mowers
*Lang played just 6 games for Detroit
Federov’s departure was the single most significant roster change for 03-04. The presence of Draper/Maltby should mean that neither young star had to do too much defensively but I can’t say whether Zetterberg’s line with Datsyuk or Yzerman’s line, presumably with Shanahan, received the tougher checking. I would lean towards the vets carrying the heavier load but both kids’ offensive production is still quite impressive.
Interestingly enough, despite the emergence of Datsyuk and Zetterberg as top 6 players Detroit still felt the need to bolster their forward corps at the trade deadline by acquiring Robert Lang. One would think they were looking for a little bit more of a responsible veteran presence as well as the increase in offensive depth heading into the playoffs. This makes a lot of sense and is also worth noting. It seems like at every possible juncture the kids were allowed to excel in smaller roles before moving onto increased responsibility, right from their early 20’s entry into the league to their sheltered role with Hull as a veteran presence to their protection behind the veterans Yzerman and Lang even after establishing themselves as legitimate top-6 forwards.
Pavel Datsyuk’s fourth NHL season (age 27)
Datsyuk began his life in the new NHL by pushing past a point per game for the first time. His +/- also soared despite his increased role so one would have to believe his line was either half decent in their own end or simply that good offensively. By age 27 of course Pavel was no longer a kid and these results would be expected of an elite offensive center at that stage of his career.
Henrik Zetterberg’s third NHL season (age 25)
Zetterberg’s first dominant season in the NHL, averaging better than a point per game and maintaining a strong + rating. Despite the excellent seasons of both players, we all know what happened to them in the playoffs.
Red Wing Forwards in 2005-06, sorted by ATOI:
Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Kris Draper, Brendan Shanahan, Robert Lang, Jason Williams, Tomas Holmstrom, Kirk Maltby, Mikael Samuelsson, Steve Yzerman, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary, Mark Mowers.
At this point you have to assume that Pavel and Henrik were getting the toughest possible defense to play against. With a banged up Steve Yzerman and the departure of Brett Hull, Zetterberg remained with Datsyuk and Shanahan as one of just three scary forwards to play against as opposed to the bevy Detroit was once able to boast.
At this point all of the anecdotes point to Babcock having more trust in Zetterberg’s two-way abilities and Datsyuk being more of a soft minute player. Can anyone speak to this? There are also a lot of anecdotes that say they were still playing together and as they have similar ATOI, points, and +/- I cannot be sure without more evidence.
Pavel Datsyuk’s fifth NHL season (age 28)
A repeat performance of the previous season. It is now safe to say that you can expect Pavel Datsyuk to give you better than a point per game and end up on the positive side of the ledger.
Henrik Zetterberg’s fourth NHL season (age 26)
Clearly emerging as an NHL star who can produce against top opposition, Zetterberg has become known as the more rounded player of Detroit’s two young stars.
I really could not think of a better development curve for either player. Entering the NHL at 23 and 22 respectively, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were both given the opportunity to mature in professional leagues before their rookie seasons in the NHL. One would think that Detroit’s outstanding forward depth made it easier for them to handle their prospects this way but then both of them swam instead of sank when Federov signed elsewhere and they were moved into the top six. Even after all of this, Detroit still brought in the veteran Lang to bolster their forward corps heading into the ’04 playoffs and take some of the weight off of their two emerging young stars. It is simply incredible to me as an Oiler fan to watch two excellent young players develop so well with so little in the way of stalling, to establish themselves as successful in baby steps on their way up instead of being pushed before they were ready, to be given all of the right opportunities at all of the right times. I think our fan base could learn a lot from this example when it comes to our treatment/expectations for Edmonton’s own young talent.