Krupa: Abdelkader sets example for young Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — When he arrived in Detroit, his mentors were guys like Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. They took him under their wings as a grinder in waiting.

The Red Wings always knew Justin Abdelkader could play well defensively, kill penalties, hit hard with his big frame and have the sort of work ethic that made forechecking his day at the office.

But, despite a famous display of hands — the latest goal in regulation to win an NCAA Championship in 2007 — and other evidence of offensive punch at Michigan State — 44 goals and 95 points in 124 games — they did not know if he could develop into an NHL scorer.

With 16 goals and 19 games remaining to hit the 20-goal mark that traditionally marks "a scorer" in the big league, at age 28, six years into his career, Abdelkader is on the verge.

They knew he could play on the third and fourth lines. They did not know he could play with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

With 60 percent more goals than he has ever produced in an NHL season, Abdelkader is a prime example of career development in the NHL.

Tomas Jurco and Teemu Pulkkinen, two younger players at different points in their development, could take note.

Establishing a career in the NHL can take time. Talented young players arrive and find that everyone is talented. Many are big, and lots are fast.

Things that worked in the AHL, in college or in the clubs in Slovakia and Finland do not always work in the big professional league.

And when they do, sometimes it is only after several years of diligence.

At 22, Jurco can provide more offense. He has not scored since before Thanksgiving, in 32 games played.

While he works to develop his NHL game, Jurco said he has sought to master his defensive responsibilities before pushing his offense.

It is also true that scoring from the third and fourth lines, on which he has mostly played, remains a work in progress, generally, for the Wings.

20 would be grand

Mike Babcock, who clearly likes what the six-foot-one, 203-pounder has to offer, tried to provide a jump start this week.

Babcock put Jurco on the top line with Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Tatar against the Rangers and Flames, when Darren Helm went down with a strained oblique.

The experiment failed.

On Saturday, Babcock said Glendening would play in the slot instead, because of his work ethic.

Mike Babcock clearly likes what Justin Abdelkader has to offer.

In two six-game stints with the Red Wings, Pulkkinen has two goals, and has played as little as 7:25 in a game and as much as 16:21.

He leads the AHL in goals (34) and points (61). But that is where he found himself, again, at the trade deadline — back in Grand Rapids.

Up and down, the 23-year-old is back up. And Babcock said he will play Sunday against the Bruins.

It often takes time for young players.

"Well, it's growth and development," Babcock said, of Abdelkader's progress. "It takes time. What's interesting is, it's no different than Jurco.

"Now, Abby's got two goals. There were times he struggled to make offensive plays we thought he might make. But he's 28 years of age. That's how long it takes for most players, unless you are a star."

Asked about scoring 20, while clearly aware of the significance of the achievement, Abdelkader spoke from the experience of a grinder who knows that a lot goes into winning hockey games and building careers.

"I mean you'd like to, yeah," said the Muskegon native. "But I don't think you can worry about that. You've just worry about going out there and playing to your capabilities, playing well.

"Goals are kind of a funny thing. They'll come in bunches sometimes, and then sometimes they won't come for a bit. So you've just got to do the right things, and I think you'll be rewarded on that. Obviously, it would mean a lot. It would be a big accomplishment."

Doing his part

The rewards are coming after some failure and frustration.

"I think, even last year, I had a lot of chances and for whatever reason I just didn't put it in the net," Abdelkader said. "But, this year, I feel like I've been more opportunistic and scored on more of my chances."

Now that he has played a continual stretch on the top two lines, Abdelkader was asked if he considers himself a top-six forward.

Not so fast.

"I think my role, it just allows me to play with those guys," he said. "I know how I have to play to be successful. I don't know if you'd say, OK, I'm a top six guy, or whatever.

"I think I do my part on the line, which is try to be at the net, be physical, be on the forecheck, skate. I just go out there and try to play the way I'm capable of, night in and night out.

"However the line shakes out is how the line shakes out. I try to do what I can no matter who I'm playing with, and play the type of game I think I'm going to be successful in."

Observing the situation, figuring out the role, discerning the niche, remaining patient until the moments present themselves and seizing the opportunities.

Abdelkder can do it.

Jurco and Pulkkinen must prove they can.