James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Sadly, Crosby praise still comes at Ovechkin’s expense

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Here’s a homework assignment for you: praise Sidney Crosby‘s incredible work without downgrading Alex Ovechkin.

Yes, it’s not easy.

ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun presented an interesting column that spotlighted an admittedly “tired narrative” while still ultimately pumping up Crosby at Ovechkin’s expense.

LeBrun quoted anonymous executives who, yes, trotted out tired narratives. One executive did the baseball thing in making it Crosby (“five-tool guy”) vs. Ovechkin (“home run hitter”) while another equated it to a full-court player vs. a “half-court” player.

It’s all … well, tiresome.

Ovechkin may not have had the greatest game of his life on Saturday, but watching that game, was the takeaway really that he let Russia down? That the difference between the two teams was, in any way, about Crosby over Ovechkin?

You can throw out all sorts of stats or lean on the eye test to note how over-matched Russia really was in that game. Or you can consider the defensemen Russia dressed in a best-on-best clash:

Dmitry Kulikov, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev, Alexey Marchenko, Alexei Emelin, Andrei Markov and Nikita Nesterov.

Yikes.

Search your soul for a second and ask: how uneasy would an NHL team feel about that group of blueliners? Such a collection would struggle against one of the league’s 30 squads, let alone against a virtual All-Star team.

Is Crosby better than Ovechkin? There’s a strong chance that is the case, because of the whole “Crosby probably being the best player of his generation” thing.

How about this for a daring idea, though: why not enjoy the work of both players?

Ovechkin is easily the best sniper of his generation, and with 82 points in 84 career playoff games, sure seems like a strong big-game player. As we all know, hockey is a team sport, yet the blame falls on Ovechkin again and again.

Instead, let’s give Crosby and the rest of his brilliant teammates our attention, as we’ve seen here, here and here.

Datsyuk made some magic in North American ‘final act’

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TORONTO (AP) Pavel Datsyuk’s North American magic show had one final act.

Months after deciding to leave the NHL and go home to Russia, the Detroit Red Wings great showed off his fanciful skillset one last time on this side of the ocean at the World Cup of Hockey. A lower-body injury may have cut his tournament short but not before another remarkable performance against players 15 to 20 years younger.

Datsyuk’s legs aren’t what they used to be at age 38, but he was a difference maker killing penalties and keeping up with the pace of a lightning-fast end-to-end victory against Team North America that helped Russia advance. He missed Russia’s round-robin finale Thursday against Finland and was scratched again from the lineup Saturday night against Canada.

Datsyuk left a lasting memory on the NHL, especially to his peers who appreciate his play the most from watching him up close.

“Oh, he’s unbelievable,” said Russian star Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You do not see much what he (can) do because he’s so professional. He’s (the) most professional I’ve ever seen.”

Datsyuk had 314 goals and 604 assists in 953 games for the Red Wings over 14 seasons. But his play with the puck is more memorable than the points he scored with it, so much so that Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri, used to recognize Datsyuk as “the magic man.”

Mike Babcock, who coached Datsyuk in Detroit before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the Russian was a pleasure to be around and someone he learned a lot from. Babcock, who’s coaching Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews with Canada for a third time, knows Datsyuk wasn’t as prodigious as those stars who were elite as teenagers but said he made a major impact when he entered the NHL at age 21.

“His span, I don’t know how many years it was, in my opinion he was the best forward in hockey in that time,” Babcock said Thursday. “Lots of people would say somebody else scored more points. He was the best player in hockey up front for a period of time with and without the puck.”

Datsyuk made it look as if he had the puck on a string and was among the best at knocking it away from opponents. Four times he won the Lady Byng Trophy awarded to the player who exemplifies sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of ability.

That standard hasn’t faded. Russia coach Oleg Znarok said in Datsyuk’s case, “age doesn’t matter.”

“He is responsible for a lot of roles on our team like penalty kill,” he said through an interpreter. “Definitely one of the best players.”

Datsyuk signed with SKA St. Petersburg to finish his playing career in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. He has great respect from the game’s top players, and those who played with him understand that the most.

“Talking with guys on (the U.S.) team and guys that I’ve come across, (they know) just how good he is with the puck and his takeaways,” former Red Wings teammate Justin Abdelkader said. “He practices every day. A lot of people don’t see, but he’s always playing after games, small-area games or 1-on-1 with players. It just shows his commitment and how good he is.”

As exciting as watching Datsyuk in games has been for fans for over a decade, Abdelkader isn’t the only player in awe of his practice habits. Russian teammate Vladislav Namestnikov called Datsyuk “unreal” and figures he’ll get better just from soaking in how his elder prepares for games in the gym and after practice.

Injuries have hampered Datsyuk and he was traded at the draft – to the Arizona Coyotes to give Detroit cap relief. He’s on the Coyotes’ roster this season despite playing in the KHL, where he already has seven points in six games.

Datsyuk leaving with one year left on his contract may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but Babcock points out it happened for the right reason.

“Age catches up to all of us,” Babcock said. “But he’s still an effective player and he’s chosen to go home to be around his family and that’s good for Pavel.”

Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .

Ilya Bryzgalov’s Canada – Russia take is the best take

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Admit it: you miss Ilya Bryzgalov.

Saturday presented the latest reminder that hockey’s just a little less fun thanks to the absence of Mr. Universe, as Bryzgalov regaled ESPN’s Craig Custance with his impeccable analysis of the drubbing Russia received from Canada during the 2010 Olympics.

You see, Breezy initially described Canada’s start “like gorillas out of a cage,” but upon further reflection …

… Well:

“Not gorillas,” Bryzgalov said. “More like Orcs from ‘The Hobbit.’ You watch that movie, right? Big. Mean. Scary.”

Fantastic.

Now, it’s possible that Bryzgalov meant “Lord of the Rings” rather than “The Hobbit,” but both series featured “Big. Mean. Scary” orcs, so who knows:

Really though, it paints quite the picture. Imagine, for a moment, Shea Weber or Brent Burns decked out like that one especially big, mean and scary orc. One can only imagine the Photoshop masterpieces that may sprout up thanks to the vivid story Bryzgalov told.

***

Now, there are some great bits leading up to Saturday’s Canada – Russia semifinal. PHT should have more to come tonight.

Sportsnet looked back at a moment in which a seemingly sure-thing Canadian team hit a brick wall in a Russian opponent. NHL.com provided a fascinating look at Mike Babcock and his quest for control. TSN captures a moment of sorts for Steven Stamkos.

There’s a lot of great stuff out there, but Bryzgalov’s takes are truly one of a kind, and they’ve been truly missed.

Star-crossed: Cody Eakin to miss about six weeks

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The Dallas Stars’ run of injuries hasn’t ended even with the World Cup of Hockey winding down.

Training camps are starting up, so that’s a new way that the team can encounter bad luck, and it didn’t take much time for the hits to keep coming. Cody Eakin suffered a lower-body injury that’s apparently bad enough to sideline him for six weeks, according to the team.

That same announcement revealed that Devin Shore will miss “some time.”

Before that bad Eakin news leaked through, head coach Lindy Ruff tried to spin the injuries as positively as possible, as the Dallas Morning News noted.

“We’ve got a little bit of the injury bug hitting us, but you’ve got to get through it,” Ruff said. “I’d rather have it now than three or four weeks from now.”

In case you’re wondering, Ruff didn’t pass around bubble wrap to everyone in the Stars’ locker room after making that statement.

Eakin has only missed four games over the last four seasons, so this injury bug is becoming quite the epidemic for the Stars.

Related: Stars might be the biggest losers of the World Cup

Maple Leafs seem giddy about Auston Matthews

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TORONTO (AP) Brooks Laich has seen top draft picks blossom in the NHL.

With the Washington Capitals, he watched Alex Ovechkin burst onto the scene in 2005. Now with the Toronto Maple Leafs some 11 years later, he has a ringside seat for Auston Matthews‘ debut.

The 19-year-old forward, the No. 1 overall pick this summer, turned heads at the World Cup of Hockey on a Team North American line with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele.

“It puts a big smile on your face,” Laich, a 12-year veteran, said about watching Matthews. “I see a lot of little things in his game, habits that you don’t generally see in young players.”

Those include his positioning, the way he competes for the puck and his shot release. From Scottsdale, Arizona, Matthews played last season in Switzerland.

Leafs center Nazem Kadri has also seen Matthews play from the Air Canada Centre stands.

“(He’s) obviously high-level skill,” he said. “(He) can skate, he’s big. So he’s only going to get better. Obviously, with that 82-game season, it’s going to be a little difficult but I think he’s going to be more than ready for it.”

Leafs management already likes what it sees.

“There’s no question he has a bright future,” GM Lou Lamoriello said. “It’s just exciting to see him play. But I think the most exciting thing is to know he’s ours.”

Laich reminded reporters asking about Matthews that the team comes first.

“This isn’t an individual sport,” he said. “This isn’t a tennis or a golf where everything comes down to one person. Auston’s a great player from what I’ve seen. But there’s also going to be 22 other great players in this room.

“So as a young guy, he’s got enough pressure on himself. He puts, I’m sure, enough pressure on himself. You don’t get to be where he is already without having an internal drive like that. So we don’t need to put anything else on him. We want to make him a member of the team, we want to treat him like the other 22 guys.”

“The logo comes first. I’m sure Auston will tell you that.”

The Leafs begin on-ice activities at training camp Friday in Halifax, Nova Scotia.