It’s no secret that Ken Holland and the Detroit Red Wings value Justin Abdelkader. To be more specific, Holland and company believe that Abdelkader is worth $4.25 million annually, a price tag that doesn’t sit well with most fans in Hockeytown. Despite the criticism of Justin’s seven-year extension in 2015, Holland truly believes the 30-year-old winger to be worth every penny:
He’s homegrown. A character guy. He’s one of the guys [head coach Jeff Blashill] and I are looking to be one of the leaders of this team. We couldn’t afford to lose him.
To his credit, Abdelkader has become a leader on and off of the ice in Detroit, all the while fulfilling his childhood dream of playing for the Red Wings. It’s a great story that has been filled with some magical moments along the way but should not factor into a large and lengthy contract in the modern NHL salary cap era. With the Wings trying to figure out how to quickly rebuild back into playoff contention while in the midst of a salary cap crunch, Abdelkader’s contract and production are one of the several large elephants in Detroit’s room.
The catalyst for Abdelkader’s 2015 contract extension is largely due to the time he spent playing alongside Pavel “the magic man” Datsyuk. During the 2014-15 NHL season, Justin recorded a career-high 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists). In 5v5 play during 2014-15, Detroit deployed a line consisting of Datsyuk and Abdelkader at a rate of 28% (data courtesy of DobberHockey). 2014-15 was also the only season in his NHL career where Abdelkader scored 20 or more goals, he scored 19 in 2015-16.
In 2014-15 Abdelkader was paired more with only one other player besides Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg. Detroit’s captain had a bounce-back campaign that season after undergoing surgery to alleviate a lingering back injury. Zetterberg ended up totaling 68 points (17 goals, 49 assists). Ultimately Abdelkader’s game and bank account greatly benefited from playing alongside two of the greatest players of the last 15 years – and it all occurred during a contract year.
Abdelkader Lost His Magic
Losing Datsyuk not only hurt the Red Wings as a whole but also affected the production of some of the team’s core players, perhaps none more so than Abdelkader. It was a running joke within the Red Wings locker room that Abdelkader was the gritty guy who moved the piano that Datsyuk so elegantly played. Without Pavel available to tickle the ivories, Justin appears to be fruitlessly lugging the proverbial piano around night after night, while still being generously compensated for his work.
The 2016-17 NHL season, Detroit’s first without Datsyuk, proved to be the long predicted decline of the Red Wings’ storied 25 year run of success in the NHL. Like many players on Detroit’s roster, Abdelkader needs to have a bounce-back year in 2017-18, especially if you factor in his $4.25 million cap hit.
Granted, Abdelkader’s decline in production last season can be partially attributed to missing 18 games to injury and constant line juggling by Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill. At the same time, you have to ponder whether Justin can return to his former goal-scoring ways. Dave Bartkowiak Jr. of Click On Detroit recently suggested that a healthy Abdelkader could score 20 goals in 2017-18, a bold prediction, considering he’s only achieved that milestone once in his career, and that was three years ago.
This isn’t to say that it is completely out of the realm of possibility for Abdelkader to score 20 score goals next season, it would definitely aid in his team’s aspirations of getting back into the playoff picture. Justin certainly has the skill, size, work ethic, and experience to find the back of the net, he just doesn’t quite have the same type of players on his line that he once did. Now Abby may be more responsible for leading and pulling the piano for some of Detroit’s younger players.
The Four Million Dollar Question
The reality of the situation is that Abdelkader may not live up to the expectations of his hefty contract, at least not in the offensive production categories. Does this make him a bad hockey player? No. Does it mean he has a bad contract that puts the Red Wings in a less than desirable cap situation? Unfortunately, yes.
Whether paying Abdelkader $4.25 million for the next six years will pay off for the Red Wings or not remains to be seen. Many of the qualities that Justin possesses, such as leadership, experience, and the highly coveted “grit” factor that Detroit loves so much are not ones that can be recorded in a statistical column but allow the opportunity to translate into scoring chances.
One thing you will never have to worry about with Abdelkader is his love for being a Red Wing. No matter how uncertain Detroit’s future may be, you can bet on Justin to uphold the pride and tradition that comes with wearing the winged wheel. However, as long as he remains with the Wings, Abdelkader’s contract will always be compared to the numbers he does or does not put up on the score sheet.