Justin Abdel… WHO?

Talking about number eight for the Detroit Red Wings used to mean talking about a Hall of Fame player, who was one of the first Soviet players to join the National Hockey League. Igor Larionov was a member of Detroit’s Russian Five, and won three Stanley Cups over eight seasons for the Winged Wheel. However, number eight now has a new owner who has made a name for himself over this lockout-shortened season. Like so many players for the Red Wings this season, Justin Abdelkader saw his role increase with the injuries the team faced. A bottom-six forward in the beginning of his career, the 26 year old Michigan native has found himself playing on the wing with Pavel Datsyuk for most of the season and throughout the playoffs.

Justin Abdelkader checks Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

Making the Most of the Opportunity

Drafted 42nd overall in 2005 by Detroit, Abdelkader first broke in to the league in 2007-2008 playing only two games. Every year he has increased his role with the team, playing in 81 games and scoring 22 points one season ago. In this shortened season, Abdelkader used his physical play and energy to cement his spot alongside Datsyuk and either Henrik Zetterberg or Johan Franzen on the other wing and was called the teams most improved player by head coach Mike Babcock. For the first time in his career, he played in every game and also set a career high with 10 goals in nearly half as many games. He also notched his first career hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks on April, 22. With his promotion to the top six forwards, Abdelkader has not changed his style of play continuing to throw his weight around, he collected 34 penalty minutes in addition to two fights over the course of the regular season.

Mike Babcock called Abdelkader the Wings' most improved player this season. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)
Mike Babcock called Abdelkader the Wings’ most improved player this season. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Finding the Right Balance Has Been a Struggle

As impressive as Abdelkader’s improvement has been, his growth is nowhere near finished. Throughout the Wings’ playoff run, his lack of experience has shown on multiple occasions when he has let his emotions get the better of him. Abdelkader was suspended two games in the first round against Anaheim when he received a major penalty and game misconduct for charging when he left his feet to deliver a shoulder-to-the-head bodycheck to Ducks’ defenseman Tony Lydman. The major penalty cost his team as the Ducks scored on that powerplay and cruised to a 4-0 victory. The difference without Abdelkader was very noticeable. Although his replacement, Mikael Samuelsson scored a goal, he was unable to bring the same energy and physicality to create more space for Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Abdelkader had a triumphant return to the lineup and he had a goal and an assist in the final two games as the Wings won both of them to eliminate the Ducks. Abdelkader scored one of the biggest goals of the series in game seven when he scored shorthanded to give Detroit the lead they never relinquished, and although it was not the game winning goal, it gave the Wings the momentum they needed to earn the series-clinching victory.
In game five against Chicago Saturday, Abdelkader took two costly, undisciplined penalties, one took away a crucial powerplay for Detroit when they were trailing by only one. The other gave Chicago the powerplay they needed to go ahead by two goals and put Detroit back on their heels. It will be interesting to see how Abdelkader bounces back in Monday’s game six.