CALGARY – For the last two months, Justin Abdelkader has grown accustom to his new role, working with one of the world’s most dynamic two-way players in the game.
The switch from bottom-six center to being the guy who does most of the heavy-lifting for Pavel Datsyuk, has earned Abdelkader the admiration of his coach.
“Abdelkader, for me, has gone from being a fourth line center to playing with Pavel every night and tied with (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Johan) Franzen and (Daniel) Cleary for goals,” said coach Mike Babcock when asked who the Red Wings’ most improved player has been this season.
Following a very slow start to the season, Abdelkader has found his niche with Datsyuk. The former Michigan State standout has scored a career-high nine goals while maintain his physicality on the forecheck. He leads the team with 104 hits, which ranks 10th among Western Conference forwards.
“In a regular season that’s a 20-goal season,” Babcock said, following the Wings’ morning skate at ScotiaBank Saddledome on Wednesday. “That’s a home run for him. He’s an every-dayer, he plays every night. So when you add that altogether I think he’s been the guy.”
Abdelkader certainly seems to feel more comfortable in his role with Datsyuk, who enters Wednesday’s game against the Calgary Flames with a team-best 41 points.
“I’ve gotten accustom to playing there and enjoy it,” Abdelkader said. “It allows me to be in on the forecheck and be down low some more. It’s been fun, and obviously playing with Pav, Mule or Z, or whoever it is, they’re all tremendous players. Just trying to go out there and do my part.”
Babcock has always preferred to use Abdelkader on a wing position. But with all of the injuries that the Wings have endured this season, it was necessary to move him to the middle.
“The reason that he gets to play with Pav, is Pav likes him,” Babcock said. “He gets him the puck back. He’s at the net and gets out of the way. He’s not confused with what his role is.
“Lots of people think you should have another real skilled guy playing with (Datsyuk), well that’s Zetterberg or that’s Franzen. But it’s not three guys who want the puck. There’s no puck. Pav wants it, and he wants somebody to give it to him. That’s what Abbie does.”
While the experiment took a few weeks to create positive results, Abdelkader has gotten into the point production swing of things, collecting eight goals and nine points in the last 14 games.
“It was definitely a slow start for me, it was tough, coming from the lockout and not playing,” Abdelkader said. “I felt like I was doing a lot of good things and eventually, hopefully, the pucks would start bouncing my way.”
He was scoreless through the first 23 games of the season, but even when he did finally score, it was an empty-netter. Then came a 5-2 win at Vancouver on March 16 when he scored twice without taking a shot.
“To get one off my foot and one off my shoulder, sometimes that's all you need, to see the puck go in the net once in a while,” Abdelkader said, of his goals in Vancouver. “You definitely want to contribute. It can be frustrating but I knew I was doing some good things out there so I just wanted to keep at it and keep working and fortunately for me now they've been going in a little bit.
“Just keeping my game the same, that's the main part, whether it's scoring goals or finishing checks or being good defensively, hanging onto pucks, I just want to – night in and night out – bring that game.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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