In November of this year Justin Abdelkader inked a seven-year $29.75M dollar extension. It would see Abdelkader signed into the latter half of his thirties and it immediately polarized the fan base. On one half, we see the Abdelkader purists. He’s a homegrown boy, he’s a future piece of the team leadership, he’s a big body who plays a style almost no one on the Wings can. On the other hand we understand that players who play that way don’t tend to age well and Abdelkader is already prone to missing about 10 games a year at age twenty-eight. His career high in points is only 44 and he’s being deployed as a top line guy. This was another loyalty signing from the Wings, take that as you may from wherever you stand, I’m just stating the facts. Let’s see what the numbers say.
The HERO chart shows what most would conclude from just the basic eye test: Abdelkader is a second-line forward. All of his production stats point to this. He sits right in the middle of what a second line forward should be doing. While he couldn’t match last years 23 goals, his 19 this year is still decent production you’d be happy to get from a second line winger. The problem of course is he is being deployed as a top-line guy and he can’t keep pace with the stiffer competition. Take a look at those possession numbers. Those show that his bruiser style isn’t quite translating against the leagues best lines. His success is dependent on quality line mates in most cases, that’s no shock, but as team production dips we can’t help but question whether the top line would be more successful with a different winger?
Abdelkader’s 42 points was just two shy of last year’s career high but he did play eleven more games this season. He had a career high by a landslide in PIMs this season (interesting for a guy who kills penalties?) and for the first time since his rookie season was a minus player (take that as you will). At 29 years old you can’t help but question has he hit his ceiling? Now, his last two campaigns have been his best ones, so we want to hope not, but we know how this league works. We know it’s getting kinder to guys like Larkin and less forgiving to guys like Abdelkader but at least for now he’s showing that he may be able to produce consistently at the 40 point mark for a few more years. When he came out of the gate flying with a hat-trick to start his season vs the Leafs we thought maybe this was the year he took those top minutes and made the most of them, but like everyone on that line, the slumps hit and they hit hard.
Abdelkader comes in just below that 50% mark which actually is a couple percent lower to the team average when he’s not on the ice. It aligns itself with the HERO chart in the fact that maybe we’d see those numbers jump a bit if he was deployed in a second line role.
Another category he comes in below average. He’s on the ice for more pucks in his own net than he is for those going the way of the Wings. Any top line plays better with the puck on their stick than they do without it. When Abdelkader is deployed to do what he does best (crash and bang) by default it means he doesn’t have the puck. Just another case for a reduced role.
All these graphics tell the same story. Abdelkader is just finding himself behind the play as a top liner. Granted, he could be benefitting from a more experienced winger than Dylan Larkin lining up opposite him to clean up some of his errors but both Larkin and Zetterberg had better numbers all around. So in reality, only Datsyuk could make that line better. Should that happen then we’d be positive he’s being compensated for.
This is an interesting one for sure. Abdelkader is Ken Holland’s “intangibles” type player. He has the grit, the heart and the edge to his game that the Red Wings generally lack but it doesn’t take an advanced stat wizard to tell you that you can’t punch the puck into the net. I don’t go as far as to see his extension as a bad contract. I understand the realities of the business and what it takes to keep certain players who you’ve invested a great deal of resources into and who has created a role for himself based on the fact the team is built without his specific ‘gifts’. For the next three years I think he’ll be playing to that $4.25M cap hit, it’s past that we’re all worried about. Pray that the league continues to expand, the Canadian dollar rises and that cap continues to climb. Maybe this year was a wake up call for the coaching staff and Nyquist and Tatar become their primary focus to reclaim the pace they were on previously. That would allow Abdelkader to drop lines and maybe find himself in a better position to succeed. Should Helm walk we could see Abdelkader getting more PK time and being deployed differently which is a change I would welcome.
A quick side-note, should Datsyuk confirm his departure, don’t be surprised to see Abdelkader wearing the ‘A’ on opening night.
We saw flashes of brilliance this year and to his credit, that top line put the team on their back at multiple points this season and carried them. When Abdelkader is going, he’s one of your favourite players to watch. He’s dynamic, he plays the body, he scores all the grimy goals teams need in today’s NHL to succeed. But when he’s off his game he really stands out just because he doesn’t have the high-end skill his usual line mates do. He can be the momentum sway the team needs whether that’s a fight or a big hit but he’s also prone to the poorly-timed stupid penalty like anyone playing on the edge. No matter what you think about him though, the guy is here to stay. He does have a skill set the team lacks for the most part and he is a player with the stats to prove he can be utilized in the middle of the lineup effectively. If he really embraces the leadership role it could be another aspect of his game where he contributes in ways that don’t show up on the score sheet.
Make no mistake, I recognize this is shaky territory when this guy is 35. Hell, this contract could hurt the team as early as 33 depending on how his body holds up. But for now he does bring value to this team and it’s a fair cap hit for his production as prices on players continue to rise. For now we’ll have to wait for next season to see what adjustments Blashill makes after a long summer of reflection.
OVERALL GRADE: B