There’s only one Magic Man, but can any coach teach their players to control the game like Pavel Datsyuk?
Recently this question was posed to me by hockey dad Sebastien, whose 2007-born son I coach. The hockey dad, volunteer coach, and life-long hockey buff had taken a closer look at the slippery Russian’s YouTube highlights and wondered what minor hockey players could learn from DET13.
An excellent project, I thought. So for the next few days we continued our research in an effort to isolate, then teach Datsyuk’s signature skills.
At 42 years of age the former Detroit Red Wings centre is still an effective player for his hometown Yekaterinburg Avtomobilists of the KHL. Prior to leaving North America, he scored 918 points in 953 NHL regular-season games. He won the Stanley Cup twice, the Selke Trophy three times, and the Lady Byng Trophy four times.
Simply put, Datsyuk is a generational forward who combined tactical awareness, technical mastery, and a thirst for winning — like Sidney Crosby. However the Nova Scotian was a first overall pick for the Pittsburgh Penguins, while Datsyuk slipped to Detroit in the sixth round of the 1998 NHL Draft, two years after he was first eligible to be picked.
What about Datsyuk?
For most people Datsyuk is synonymous with highlight-reel dekes and impossible defensive takeaways. But it would be impractical and unfair to get on the ice and ask 13-year-olds to stickhandle like an elite NHLer. So before attempting to teach what Datsyuk does, we’ll need to identify the platform skills that facilitate his exceptional plays.
After hours of video study, Sebastien and I came to a very simple conclusion: Like Crosby, Datsyuk is extremely comfortable shooting, passing, and protecting the puck with his backhand.
Even when working 1v1 against a defender, Datsyuk is effectively able to create a dual threat by setting the puck on his backhand and attacking his check face-to-face. If his opponent commits to his backhand side, Datsyuk can pull the puck onto his stronger forehand wing and escape. But if his opponents take away his best out, the Russian can simply turn to his backhand side and create another offensive advantage.
Conversely, the average NHLer (an exceptional player in his own right) typically defaults to carrying the puck on his forehand side and would have to make a more difficult forehand-backhand move when challenged 1v1. In that light, Datsyuk’s already top-notch hand skills are amplified by his playing habits — unlike most he is going from weakness-to-strength rather than strength-to-weakness when he needs to find a play.
How do we teach it?
With player identification, video study, and uncovering actionable insights out of the way, we are now in a position to develop a teaching progression. Here is what we did:
Two-puck stickhandling, backhand side
For younger players, stickhandling with two pucks is a great way to develop feel for the puck. They learn to position each puck in a consistent spot before moving onto the next one while not over-dribbling. In addition this drill can be done both on and off the ice (roller blades or street shoes).