A little more than three years ago, just before turning 20, Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov was given the opportunity to play alongside Russian star Pavel Datsyuk in the 2012 World Championships.
A few months later, in an interview with a web magazine in his native Chelyabinsk, Kuznetsov praised the Detroit Red Wings center for his extraordinary skills and determination.
“He may not score 100 goals a year, but when he’s out on the ice, he just humiliates you,” Kuznetsov said back then. “He sees everything, he can tie his opponent’s shoelaces with one hand. It seems like he never even gets tired. I was happy to play against him, and it was a real honor to play with him.”
Tonight in Detroit (8 p,m., NBCSN), Kuznetsov will line up against the 37-year-old ‘Magic Man” in a match of youth versus guile. Kuznetsov, now 23, remembers watching Datsyuk when he returned to play for Dynamo Moscow during the 2004-05 lockout. Kuznetsov was 12 years old at the time.
“I will be excited to play against Pavel and see how he plays,” Kuznetsov said Tuesday before boarding a flight to Detroit. “How he can play in the back end is fun to watch but it’s also lots of work. He can do it all. Win faceoffs, play D zone, he can be hard guy, he can hit you. He can do everything on the ice and you have to work hard to beat him.”
Now in his 14th NHL season, Datsyuk, who missed the first 14 games of the season with ruptured tendons in his right ankle, enters tonight’s game with 869 points in 890 NHL games (all with the Red Wings) and is considered one of the best all-around players Russia has ever produced.
“Obviously, he’s a top guy,” said Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin. “A tough center. I play against him and he has unbelievable skill. It’s going to be a great game for us. I don’t think we played good the last couple games so it’s a good time for us to bounce back.”
Although Kuzentsov is still very early in his NHL career, Capitals coach Barry Trotz says he sees similarities between Datsyuk and his young center, who has 17 points in his first 16 games this season.
As coach of the Nashville Predators, Trotz estimates he has seen Datsyuk play about 100 times against him and says he is one of his favorite players to watch on the opposition.
“The intangibles about Pavel Datsyuk is that he plays and competes at a really high level and he doesn’t give up on any play. And he plays with a lot of joy in the game, he loves to play the game. Those two factors, combined with his hockey IQ and his skill level make him a very elite player.
“Kuzy has all the skill qualities and he’s learned the defensive side of the game. The trick for Kuz is that he’s just starting out. The thing that’s comparable is that they both have very high skill levels and they both have a lot of joy in their game.
“It’s the grind, competing at that level every day that’s necessary to have success. I think Pav probably had to learn that as a young man. He’s got it down pat now and Kuzy is growing in that area. Who knows? I know they have a little bit of a relationship and Pavel has probably been a real good, strong influence on Kuzy’s game.
“Hopefully, it can continue to grow. I think Kuzy recognizes the greatness in a guy like Pavel Datsyuk. I think Pavel gets as much respect as any Russian player who has ever played the game.”
So much so that Kuznetsov says he can only hope to someday be nearly as good as Datsyuk is now.
“I’m too far from him and I have to work every day,” Kuznetsov said. “I may never be like Pavel, but I want to be and have some of his skills. I’m excited for him to come back and play hockey, but I want to focus on our game because we need the points.”