May 15, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Gregg Krupa

Red Wings F Justin Abdelkader advances into vital role

ďItís not always going to be on the score sheet. Itís going to be playing that hard game I play,Ē Detroitís Justin Abdelkader said of his contributions. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Detroit -- With Justin Abdelkader out for Games 4 and 5 against the Ducks, Henrik Zetterberg was asked if he had instructed potential replacements about playing on the top line with him and Pavel Datsyuk.

Zetterberg smiled and cracked a little wise.

"No, I think they already heard enough from Pavs," the captain said, grinning broadly.

The comment revealed a bit about Datsyuk, but it spoke volumes about Abdelkader.

At the beginning of March, the question to coach Mike Babcock was: Why are you playing Abdelkader with Datsyuk?

By the end of the first week in May, it was: How do you replace him?

Abdelkader, 26, is having that kind of season, his fourth with the Red Wings.

Amid many considerations, they will need him playing well to grasp any slender hope of prevailing against the Blackhawks.

Like the Red Wings this season, Abdelkader has developed and improved in a big way.

Grinding, killing penalties, playing on the third or fourth lines, hitting opponents with a body thick enough to have consequences and winning faceoffs was Abdelkader's game.

Scoring? Not so much.

Despite his most famous moment, the 2007 NCAA championship goal that showed a good pair of hands, offense did not come easy in the NHL.

Before the 2011-12 season, Abdelkader said he hoped to tally double figures in goals for the first time.

He made it to eight, although his 22 points were a career high.

Growing, improving

Now, Abdelkader's dressing stall is a hot spot where the media jockey for better positions.

He spoke Tuesday of the 2013 Red Wings. He might well have been talking about himself.

"We're a group that's come a long way," Abdelkader said. "And I know there are a lot of people who doubted us in the first round and will doubt us in the second round, here.

"But we know what kind of group we have here and what can be done if we stick to the game plan."

Since he signed April 3, 2007, the Red Wings knew Abdelkader's size, work ethic, character, willingness to improve his skating, and the fact his coach, Mike Babcock, used to say, "Abby is a real good boy."

The curiosity was, how much offensive upside was there to his game?

Then came Datsyuk. He needed someone to play the role of puck-chaser, body-checker and creator.

That kind of player has a long history with the Red Wings and others.

Sergei Fedorov used to fret when Scotty Bowman moved Doug Brown off his line.

In the same vein, when Tomas Holmstrom retired at the start of this season, he said some of the best advice he ever got came from Igor Larionov.

"Holmer, if you lose the puck," Holmstrom said, "you have to go get it. I'm not going to get it for you."

Brown and Holmstrom thrived with outstanding offensive players.

Abdelkader scored 10 goals in 48 games this season. At that pace, in an 82-game season, he would score 17.

He did not move to the top line until after 23 games. Viewed that way, he was on a 33-goal pace from March 4 until the end of the season.

"I don't think there's really time to evaluate anything, now," he said, after the media scrum moved on. "I think it's more for after the season.

"But as a hockey player, I just want to grow each season and to get better. I work on my skills and my skating and my conditioning and my endurance and everything a lot in the offseason. Even after practices I'm out there late trying to work on things and get better.

"But I think hockey's a game of confidence and when you're playing with confidence, it's a good thing.

"I'm going to just keep doing things the right way."

Beefing up offense

If Abdelkader continues apace against the Blackhawks, it might help key some Red Wings victories.

Next season, if he stays with Datsyuk and a third partner, which in the series against the Ducks was either Zetterberg or Johan Franzen, 15-18 goals are a reasonable expectation.

And if Abdelkader finds himself on the third and fourth line, helping with a clear priority for the Red Wings — more offense throughout the four lines — he still will provide much of the team's needs.

"It's not always going to be on the score sheet," Abdelkader said. "It's going to be playing that hard game I play."

As for accepting direction from his wizard of a linemate, Datsyuk, Abdelkader smiled.

"No, you know, he's a great player," he said. "And, for me, playing with him, I want to get him the puck as much as I can — be at the net for him, too.

"But if he tells me he wants me to go somewhere else or do something else, I'll do it.

"It's a pretty simple job and I just want to skate and forecheck for those guys. And, Pavs? You know, he's one of the best players in the world, especially with the puck on his stick.

"As much as I can I want to make sure he has the time to make those plays."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com