Justin Abdelkader is a power forward?
Someday we hope to be able to use that sentence without the question mark. I mean, I guess you already could, depending on how you personally define the term. For me, when it comes to putting titles on physical frontliners, there are essentially two categories: power forwards and grinders. The only distinction I draw between the two is the ability to score. The former does that consistently, the latter does not.
Justin Abdelkader has never scored more than 10 goals in a season. At age 27, his career high in points is 28. Purely for comparison's sake, Darren McCarty, the famous Grind-Liner who might serve as a very good standard for Abdelkader, had four straight seasons scoring 14 or more goals for the Red Wings by the time he was 27. McCarty went on to do that two more times in his NHL career. Different times and team comportment makes the comparison a little muddy, but McCarty regularly played as the "grit" guy on a line with highly-skilled forwards and, despite not putting up high points totals, helped his team.
So, when Ansar Khan profiled Abdelkader on Sunday morning, leaving us with the question about whether Abdelkader should continue playing a top-six role or be used on a checking line, he was setting that comparison nicely. It's a tough question to answer and begs more analysis than it seems.
How much actually depends on Abdelkader?
As it was with McCarty's usage, Abdelkader's place in the lineup will come down to coaching decisions about what the team needs and his role will be set more by Mike Babcocks' analysis than by Abdelkader's abilities. By now, we know what we have in Abdelkader. He's going to do the same thing regardless of whether Pavel Datsyuk is his center or Luke Glendening plays his pivot (although he should score more with Datsyuk). We know that Babcock likes to put together lines with one playmaker, one shooter, and one physical net-front player.
However, one thing that Babcock seems to have at his disposal this year which he hasn't necessarily gotten in the last few years is more choices in skill options. Ideally, Henrik Zetterberg will be able to play as the team's very best winger this season. Johan Franzen will take up another of the four winger spots on the top two lines. Gustav Nyquist showed last season that he can handle top six duties. Tomas Tatar shows a lot of promise as far as those responsibilities. If Babcock wants to trust those two in top-six roles (or wants to give players like Anthony Mantha a real shot at making the team), he's also got younger skilled players capable of back-filling lower lines. Of course, this doesn't even consider the possible return of Daniel Alfredsson, which we'll know in a few weeks.
While it's crucial to have a guy to make space, fight in front of the net, and help retrieve pucks in the corner, there's really no reason to assume that this is specifically something that has to be given to a guy like Abdelkader. Honestly, both Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist did a fair amount of both of those things. The thing about making space, positional battling, and puck retrieval is that laying hits is only the most-obvious means to those ends. Fast puck movement, good timing, and effective body/stick position all accomplish those things in ways that are perhaps harder to appreciate and definitely harder to prevent.
Honestly, knowing what we know about Babcock, I'd be surprised if Abdelkader were not given the top line winger role next to Datsyuk. However, I think prospect development has given the coach a lot more flexibilty to give Abdelkader a lot less leash in that spot.
What can Justin Abdelkader actually do?
Justin Abdelkader is no longer a prospect. We have a good amount of data to suggest what he can do, but this doesn't translate itself so easily to expected numbers, as variance effects not only him but the people with whom he plays (and even the role he plays). I'm not ready to call 10 goals his absolute standard. In fact, assuming more roster stability, I'd happily assume Adelkader should reasonably shoot for 15 or so, with mere luck having an incredible amount of power to move his actual production away from that number.
Aside from just scoring (which, obviously isn't his bailiwick), Khan describes it pretty well:
Abdelkader brings a different dimension for a team that has a lot of smaller forwards. He provides a much-needed abrasive element and has the ability to agitate and get under opponents' skin
The size thing can't be ignored in the context of the smaller forwards. When a guy is 5'11", he can be physical "despite his size" and, yes that's what makes it more rare/notable. The size advantage makes up in many places for all sorts of shortcomings. It's a natural advantage to the role. The abrasiveness/ability to get under skin element remains just about the single most-difficult-to-quantify piece of what people think makes a good power forward/grinder. However, in the pieces which we can quantify, Extraskater.com tells us that Justin Abdelkader has been able to maintain a positive penalty differential over the last four seasons. His possession numbers have been positive, but it's hard to argue that he's the one driving that effect considering the linemates he's been given.
We can pretty well argue that Abdelkader isn't making Datsyuk and Zetterberg worse while he's out there with them. Whether or not Justin Abdelkader is a capable NHLer isn't under question here. The question becomes whether they're better off with him than they would be with somebody else. This warrants much more study than we have space for today, but I don't know where the balance between bigger versus more-skilled lies.
Ansar has certainly set up an interesting either/or consideration for Abdelkader which probably answers itself pragmatically. Abdelkader's usage for the past few seasons has taken him away from the penalty killing duties at which he wasn't very good and cut him out as a Holmstromesque offensive specialist. His $1.8M cap hit is low enough that he could potentially moved back to a 3rd line role, but there's nothing to suggest that the organizational philosophy has changed in regards to Abdelkader's usage. We know that good things are happening for Detroit when Abdelkader gets to play on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. We know that he's a net positive player for the lineup. The things we don't know aren't nearly as important. In fact, I'm praying that the Abdelkader question becomes the single most-pressing matter for the Wings' this season; it should mean good things.