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Has Justin Abdelkader Gotten The Piano Off His Back?

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

This past season, Justin Abdelkader finally broke out, scoring 23 goals and 44 points, including 10 goals in the month of March. At 28 years old, many feel that he's stepping into his prime and will become the power forward the Wings have longed for since Johan Franzen circa 2009. Only four players this season between the ages of 26 and 29 were able to score at least 20 goals and 40 points, record greater than 70 penalty minutes, and play more than 1200 minutes of ice time this season. It was Abdelkader, Brad Marchand, Blake Wheeler, and Andrew Ladd. That's not bad company to be in when we are talking about "power forwards". However, the question begs, was this season an aberration, or is Abdelkader only getting started?

Evaluating Abdelkader's Impact On Teammates

Prior to this season, Abdelkader had recorded a grand total of 39 goals and 88 points in 327 games. For comparison, Sean Avery scored 50 goals and 135 points in his first 327 games. So yea, Abdelkader wasn't much of an offensive dynamo, despite having either Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk playing with him for almost half of career 5v5 minutes. So how does a player with those career numbers go to all of a sudden finishing second on his team in 5v5 goals and fourth in 5v5 points/60 mins, ahead of Zetterberg, Gustav Nyquist, and Riley Sheahan? Whenever there's an extreme jump or drop in performance, it's important to determine whether or not this is sustainable. For example, last year, Nyquist's shooting percentage of 18.75% at 5v5 was not going to be sustainable.

From this image we see that Abdelkader had a career year when it came to his impact on goals for per 60 minutes at 5v5. However, this occurred without having any real difference in his impact on the amount of shot attempts generated. To me, this generally indicates that there was a little bit of luck involved in the goal department. This worries me because as you can see from the top graph, Abdelkader's impact did not significantly improve from last season to this season in terms of 5v5 CF/60 but made a dramatic improvement in GF/60. Is this going to be a sustainable improvement for next season and the years to come? I have my doubts.

Evaluating Abdelkader's Individual Impact

We saw Abdelkader's impact on his teammates performance make a dramatic jump this past season, but how did he perform individually? Check out this visual made by Sportsnet's Stephen Burtch using Passing Project data from Ryan Stimson at In Lou We Trust.

To orient  you, this chart is showing Corsi Contribution/60 minutes which essentially evaluates a players' individual shot attempts, primary passes leading to shot attempts, and secondary passes leading to shot attempts per 60 minutes. As you can see, Abdelkader ranks 9th among Red Wings forwards in this metric, indicating that he's not really a "driver" of the offense. He's not the one taking shots or making the passes to set up the shot attempts. In fact, Abdelkader's passing in general ranks towards the bottom, as shown by this graph from Stimson's Passing Project.

You see that Abdelkader's Corsi Contribution/60 from the initial graph is actually below the 20th percentile for NHL forwards. Additionally, the number of scoring chances that either Abdelkader had or made the primary or secondary pass on (SCC/60) rank below the 20th percentile. Essentially, Abdelkader is a piano puller as Datsyuk once famously called him. He's not the one orchestrating the offense, setting up plays, or generating individual scoring chances. He's found himself in a few opportune situations and made the most of it last year. To put it altogether I'm going to show you one last image.

This last image comes courtesy of Domenic Galamini at Own The Puck. This is data from 2012-2015 showing usage adjusted metrics, meaning that they have taken into account a player's zone starts, quality of teammates, and quality of competition. What you can see from this is that over the past three seasons, Abdelkader has almost received first-line minutes, but has a point production that ranks as a top-tier 3rd line player.

What Does Detroit Do With Abdelkader?

By now, you're all probably wondering what I'm getting at and why I'm piling all over a guy who just scored 23 goals and is one of the big reasons the Wings survived March and were able to get into the postseason. Well all of this has an end purpose. You see, Justin Abdelkader made just $1.8 million last season and his contract is up at the end of this season. What do you think the going rate is for a 29-year old power forward that has a 20-goal season? Well, Joel Ward, who is 34-years old with the same eight years of NHL experience as Abdelkader and the same number of 20-goal seasons, just got a three-year, $9.75 million deal from the San Jose Sharks. TJ Oshie who has just one 20-goal season and is also 28 years old was traded for a 3rd-line roster player, a prospect, and a 3rd-round pick.

I'd say that Abdelkader could easily find himself with a $3-3.5 million deal come next offseason. With no certainty that the cap increases a significant amount, what do you do? I'm going to be frank here, but on a Stanley Cup championship team, Abdelkader is a top-tier 3rd-line forward. From the graphs above you saw how Abdelkader is receiving top-6 minutes but has little to show for it and is ultimately blocking guys such as Teemu Pulkkinen and Tomas Jurco from getting a chance to play those minutes. Should you be paying a 3rd-line forward $3-3.5 million a year? Probably not. I think right now and through the early part of the season, Abdelkader's value will be at an all-time high. If the Wings find themselves as sellers at the trade deadline or are looking to make a huge splash at the trade deadline, I hope that Abdelkader is not considered an untouchable piece.