Justin Abdelkader this year was a fascinating experiment. Injuries hit the Wings hard, and suddenly we were looking at a world where Datsyuk was centering a line with Cleary and Abdelkader. Calling that line a "disaster" would be putting it lightly. The best playmaker in the world was stuck centering two guys who were mediocre finishers, and the Wings constant scoring struggles were magnified during this time.
Then something funny happened. Franzen returned from injury, and we started seeing a top line of Abdelkader-Datsyuk-Franzen or Abdelkader-Datsyuk-Zetterberg. Abdelader nets an empty net goal, then suddenly bursts out with a highly unexpected hat trick, and his place on the top line was sealed from there. The Wings really had a lack of better options, and Datsyuk supposedly liked playing with Abdelkader, so his spot remained. The question I'm seeking to answer is this: in the second half of the season, did Abelkader contribute at a level that justified his spot in the top 6, or was he just "a guy" who happened to play with Datsyuk? I see a lot of people making comments to the effect of "we need to get Abdelkader off that top line," so I'd like to explore whether or not there's any validity to that. To do this, I'd like to first talk generally about Abelkader’s role, then we'll dig into some statistical nerdery.
Justin Abdelkader is good at a few things:
- Fore-checking (note: I place almost no stock in the "hit" statistic, but pressuring & forcing turnovers with offensive zone checking is valuable)
- Crashing the net & overall net presence
- Puck retrieval - digging it out of corners, chasing down rebounds, etc.
Justin Abdelkader is not good at a few things:
- Play making
- Shooting - by this I mean Abdelkader taking a clear shot from the circle is generally not very scary. His goals are usually the ugly/dirty variety.
I've jokingly called Abdelkader a "Poor Man's Tomas Holmstrom" a few times this year, but as the season went on, the comparison began to make a lot of sense. Abdelkader even landed himself some well-earned PP time in the playoffs. The above two lists are pretty simplified in terms of what Abdelkader really can & can’t do, but the point is it sure looks to me like the description of a physical winger, not a center. I don't think it should be a massive surprise that Abdelkader suddenly seems more useful as a winger than a center, because a lot of his shortcomings are minimized if he gets to play a net-crashing fore-checking winger instead of a play-driving center.
I would argue that Abdelkader consistently brought real value to the top line in the same way Tomas Holmstrom did when he was in his prime. Holmstrom may have been most known for his goalie screening abilities, but many forget that his puck retrieval skills were every bit as good. To my eyes, Abdelkader seemed to be getting better every game at replicating this, to the point where it seemed as if his impact down the stretch was quite high. I also began to believe that he did belong in the top 6 of this year’s team, and that he likely belongs there next year as well barring a major addition, which doesn’t seem particularly likely to happen. If this is true, his ability to produce offense and possession should be fairly strong. Thankfully, we have a lot of stats that can attempt to measure this, so let’s take a look. I’m only going to look at Wings forwards who played at least 20 games. This eliminates Tatar, Bertuzzi, Samuelson, and Helm. The 13 players who qualify: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Justin Abdelkader, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Daniel Cleary, Joakim Andersson, Gustav Nyquist, Damien Brunner, Drew Miller, Jordin Tootoo, Patrick Eaves. I’m also only going to look at regular season stats, as playoffs can be a little distorting with higher competition, playing through injuries, matchups, small sample sizes, etc.
Justin Abdelkader ranked 5th in goals with 10, behind only Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, and Brunner. Filppula and Cleary both had 9 for 6th and 7th, so it was close, but he’s certainly a borderline top 6 producer at a glance. A reaction here might be to point out that he played with Datsyuk for half the season, and therefore should have produced more than 10 goals. However, out of these 13 forwards, Abdelkader ranked only 7th in ice time. Filppula for example got 3 minutes/game more than Abdelkader, and yet produced 1 fewer goal. The main disconnect here is that out of the top 7 scorers Abdelkader got no power play time for almost the entire season, whereas the other 6 (Datsyuk/Z/Franzen/Filppula/Cleary/Brunner) got consistent power play time on either the first or second unit. These are easier minutes to score in than 5 on 5, and Abdelkader got virtually none of it until a few playoff games. You could also note that Abdelkader played a full season while a guy like Franzen only played 41 games, but staying healthy is a valuable skill. Franzen has not played 80+ games since he was logging 12 mins/night as a rookie. Abdelkader’s injury history is harder to pinpoint given his shorter playing career, but at the least he’s played all but one game in the last two seasons. Being in the lineup every single night has real value. Not only that, but I made use of the resources over at BehindTheNet, and Justin Abdelkader actually led the team in goals/60 minutes of ice time:
In a vacuum, this stat is only of minor use, as you’ll notice most of the guys near the bottom of the list kill penalties. However, it’s not completely useless, because Abdelkader did this with virtually 0 PP minutes, which is not something the next 3 guys on the list (Brunner, Franzen, Nyquist) can say. When assists are factored in, Abdelkader resumes his spot firmly in the middle of the pack since he does not get many assists. However, when you play on a line with Datsyuk, there’s no reason for you to be the assist producer. Abdelkader needs to put in the ugly goals for the Wings, and he seems to be able to do that very well. He put in these goals despite clearly having less shooting ability, raw talent, ice time, and PP time than all 6 of the other top scorers. This again suggests he is filling a role and filling it pretty well. In context, though, we can at least establish a lot of reason to believe that strictly in terms of goals, Abdelkader out-produced Cleary, Filppula, and to some extent Brunner despite less ice time and without the PP time that those 3 players got.
In terms of possession, Abdelkader’s numbers stick right around where you’d expect. For those unfamiliar with Corsi, it is essentially a +/- for shot attempts (shot attempts being distinct from shots on goals, which gives you a larger sample size). A player with a high Corsi is logically spending a lot of time in the offensive zone, and therefore is probably helping to drive possession, which in turn drives goals/wins. Strong team possession metrics correlate very highly with winning, so it seems to have good predictive power. Anyway, the most descriptive variant of Corsi is probably Corsi Rel QoC, which essentially adjusts for the Corsi of your on-ice opponents. A player facing the other team’s top line will probably struggle for Corsi more than a player who consistently gets sheltered minutes, and Corsi Rel QoC adjusts for that. Here is Detroit’s standings for this stat:
Abdelkader slots in 7th here, just barely at the back of the "big 7" on the team, but overall right there with them. Given that Abdelkader was worlds better in the second half of the season when acclimated to his new position than the first half of the season, I think it’s fair to guess Abdelkader goes up a notch or two if 82 games were played instead of stopping after 48. The evidence does not suggest he is a major force in driving possession, but it does suggest he adequately pulls his weight rather than dragging things down.
One final thing. I’d like to try to predict Abdelkader’s goal output for next season, assuming he continues to play with Datsyuk on a top line. I’m going to try to estimate this using shots on goal and shooting percentage. Shooting percentage tends to normalize itself over the course of a long season. The vast majority of forwards tends to regress towards 10%. Some star players can sustain higher percentages (Datsyuk is a shade over 14%), but overall it’s surprisingly consistent. Justin Abdelkader shot 10.4% this season, which is pretty ordinary. However, his shots on goal went up markedly over the course of the season. I’ll add the playoffs since it works out neatly to be a month. Let’s break it down:
January: 6 shots on goal, 6 games, 1 shot/game
February: 25 shots on goal, 15 games, 1.67 shots/game
March: 32 shots on goal, 14 games, 2.29 shots/game
April: 33 shots on goal, 13 games, 2.54 shots/game
Playoffs: 33 shots on goal, 12 games, 2.75 shot/game (suspension kept him at 12, not 14)
More shots = more goals. The percentages will balance themselves out. January-February was when Abdelkader was playing bottom 6 minutes and/or just starting out with Datsyuk. From there his shots very consistently increased. The playoff total is especially impressive given it came against well above-average competition. The pattern is clear - Abdelkader got better as the season went on, and he is more likely to produce at that level next year if he remains in that role. For sake of prediction, I’m going to project he will get 2.5 shots/game next year. I will also assume he continues playing a top-6 role with Datsyuk. This 2.5 figure is under his playoff average and a hair under April, but I think it’s a reasonable (but conservative) projection of what he would do next year in this role. (I would also guess he’s likely to at least see at minimum PP2 minutes next year, which would almost certainly nudge his shots/game & goals up even higher). 2.5 shots/game * 82 games works out to 205 shots, good for in the neighborhood of 19-22 goals. If the weakest player on the top line nets 20 goals while contributing significantly physically (especially by protecting Datsyuk from taking such a beating) on a team that now plays a lower-scoring style, I would call that a very real success.
So to wrap this way-too-long post up, I would suggest from the above data that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Abdelkader playing a top 6 role next year. We’ve seen enough in the last 2ish months of the season to show that he is a legitimate contributor. If the Wings were to score a big goal scoring forward who could bump Abdelkader down, by all means bump him down to 3rd line wing, but Marian Hossa is not walking through that door. The evidence supports Abdelkader as a legitimate top-line option rather than a stopgap, and I think he’ll continue to improve in the role next year. I'll attach a poll, feel free to agree or disagree via the poll and/or in the comments, and we'll chat.