DETROIT – Coming into the season, Justin Abdelkader was depended upon to be a contributing role player in the Red Wings’ everyday lineup. What the forward erupted into in 2014-15 was a threatening goal scorer who broke out with a career season.
Playing 71 games and skating alongside top talent like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk would help anyone’s stat line but a top-six forward must produce in order to earn his keep.
By January – just 40 games into the 82-game schedule – Abdelkader had already matched his previous career-high of 10 goals when he scored on the man advantage in a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He would finish the season with 23 goals, posting a four-game goal streak and scoring 10 goals in the final 17 games of the regular season.
“Goals are kind of a funny thing where they’ll come in bunches a lot of times and then sometimes, they won’t come for a bit,” Abdelkader said. “You just gotta keep doing the right things and I think you’ll be rewarded on the ice.”
Finishing fifth on the team in points, Abdelkader also posted a career-high 21 assists with 14 of his 43 points coming on the power play.
His biggest improvements were made on the man advantage, occupying the net-front position made famous in Detroit by Tomas Holmstrom. A much better skater than Holmstrom and a bit bigger of a body at 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Abdelkader thrived on the power play scoring eight goals. A massive increase for the Muskegon, Mich., native who had scored just one power-play goal in 327 games prior to this season.
“Even last year, I felt like I had a lot of chances just for whatever reason didn’t put them in the net,” Abdelkader said. “This year, I felt like I’ve been more opportunistic and scored on more of my chances.”
Producing offensively leads to providing more clutch performances and logging serious ice time at pivotal moments in games. Five of Abdelkader’s goals proved to be the game winner – two more than his previous career high – including overtime goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 23, and the St. Louis Blues on March 22.
Once a role player, cutting his teeth as a high-energy grinder getting 12 minutes of ice time per game, Abdelkader has blossomed into a major contributor logging serious minutes and producing clutch performances for the Wings. He has demonstrated an ability to score goals in bunches and finish on breakaways while still maintaining a physical presence on the ice and winning puck battles along the boards.
At 28-years-old, Abdelkader is nearing his peak and his sixth full season in the league proved to be his best yet. Adding another wrinkle to his game has made Abdelkader an invaluable piece in the lineup and players like him are important as big-bodied forwards occupy space and open up room for star forwards to go to work.
Datsyuk famously used the analogy that Abdelkader moves the hypothetical piano while the Russian superstar plays it. Given the phrase, Abdelkader may have mastered the art of piano pushing after achieving a string of career highs this season.