Justin Abdelkader was the poster child for Detroit’s woes, at least at the forward position. Well, Riley Sheahan was front and center on that poster, lead guitarist style, but Abdelkader was still on the poster, just off to the side a little, like the bass player.
So what can the bass player of G.R.I.T. (with their hit album, “Offensive Futility”) do to get back on track? The hockey equivalent of a Geddy Lee deep-cut bass solo.
The Abdelkader of Christmas Past
There is a kind of beautiful symmetry with Justin Abdelkader’s career; he rose from role player to top-6 forward based on the insistence of Pavel Datsyuk, and for a while there it looked like Abdelkader had turned a corner, eventually developing some chemistry on Detroit’s top line with Henrik Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist. But with Datsyuk’s retirement from the NHL last season, Abdelkader seemed to settle back into being a role-player.
Or, at least that’s a nice narrative.
Abdelkader had, by all measures, a very rough season in 2016-17. His point total dropped from 42 to 21, goals from 19 to 7, and assists from 23 to 14. His CF% went from a not-good 49.8 to a very-bad 46.4. He did this despite spending most of his playing time with the likes of Zetterberg, Larkin, and Tomas Tatar. In fairness, he also spent a good deal of time with Darren Helm, but deployment questions start getting asked when a player posts the type of numbers that Abdelkader did this past season while playing with the guys listed above.
To rub salt in the wound, in December he went down with a knee injury that he never fully came back from; he got it scoped back April, but determined that surgery wasn’t necessary. These sorts of injuries always make you wonder and worry, though, if they’re not indicative of something persistent. Hopefully, dodging surgery wasn’t just kicking the can down the road.
The Ghost of Abdelkader Future
This season is the rubber match for Abdelkader’s career. Did he have a few flash in the pan seasons and is returning to Earth as a bottom-six player, or was he a struggling player battling a knee injury on a struggling team?
The key to Abdelkader’s success in the 2017-18 season is going to be about health and consistency. He’s never been a guy to drive a line, instead providing the space for others to optimize their talent by working hard in front of the net, in the corners, etc. That play style really puts a physical toll on a player, but if Abdelkader can stay healthy he has shown in the past that he is capable of getting the job done on the top lines. If Abdelkader continues to get paired with Detroit’s top offensive weapons, and Wings fans are hoping for a rebound from those weapons, then Abdelkader will also need to rebound. The past year showed that teams designed defensive plays to contain players like Larkin; Abdelkader is the guy to skate into the zone to disrupt those containment plays.
So, Abdelkader finds himself in a position now where he is paid like a top-6 player, is expected to produce like one, but his contract is one (of many) that seems to be causing distention in the ranks. Because of that, there is a lot more riding on Abdelkader this year than a stat line.
What Line will Abdelkader play the majority of his minutes on this season?
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