Red Wings believe Justin Abdelkader entering his prime

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — It seems hard to believe, but Justin Abdelkader is going to be 28 years old in February. He is beginning his fifth full season with the Red Wings. His statistics (averaging about nine goals and 12 assists over the previous four seasons), his overall efficiency and his role on the team have been a constant — not spectacular but solid, dependable.

But since the Wings' success this season is predicated on significant growth from within, it seems fair to ask whether there is another level Abdelkader can get to. Is he destined to be the Kirk Maltby of this generation of Wings — a valuable, gritty, third- or fourth-line player?

Or can he be more of a two-way threat? Can he produce 15 to 20 goals? Can he be a guy that can play a regular role on one of the top two lines?

"I think his best years are right now," coach Mike Babcock said before Wednesday's game against the Bruins. "Abby's been great in both of our games, but he's still got to learn to slow down in the scoring area."

Nobody expects Abdelkader to be a 30-goal scorer, but because he is a big-bodied, strong-skating forward who doesn't shy away from the dirty areas in front of the net, he creates scoring chances. He was given an opportunity to play on the power play unit last season for a stretch and wasn't able to keep the role.

Babcock would like to see him convert more of those chances.

"You don't have as much time as you want, but you've got more time than you think," Babcock said of Abdelkader's anxiousness in the offensive end. "So just slow down in the scoring areas. Play like you do, but when you get it, you can score, so just breathe a little bit."

Abdelkader began the season on the No. 1 line with Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen and produced a goal and an assist in the first two games. But he was back on the third line Wednesday, playing with Darren Helm and Joakim Andersson.

"For the most part, once a guy is in his fifth year, you know exactly who they are and what they are going to do," said Eddie Olczyk, a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the analyst on NBC's broadcast of the game Wednesday. "But it comes with more reps and more opportunity and who you play with.

"I don't think he's scratched the surface, but he's a role player. Everybody has a role and you have to do two things — accept it and execute. And when the door opens for more opportunity, that's when you have to jump through."

Abdelkader believes he is poised, if not for a breakout year, then certainly for a career-best year.

"Out of the five years, this is the best I have felt on the ice," he said. "I feel I have more confidence in what I do. I had a good summer of training and a good World Championship opened up some things."

Abdelkader was one of the leaders of the United States team that went 4-3, losing to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the World Hockey Championships in Belarus last spring. He had three goals and an assist in the seven games.

"Playing with different players, getting to know different players, getting to know different guys and playing for different coaches, it just opens your mind up to different things," he said. "At times you can be stuck in one mind-set. But going out there and being on the world stage and playing a different type of game, I think that was good for me."

Abdelkader played on the 2012 U.S. team, as well, and had his best season NHL season to date the following season. He scored 10 goals in the 48-game lockout-shortened season.

"I think I came back a better player and I expect the same thing this time around," he said. "I learned a lot. I was counted on as a leader on the team and I feel really good coming into this season."

The way Abdelkader views it, an increase in goals and assists won't determine whether he took his game up another notch. That will be shown in the roles and responsibilities Babcock entrusts him with.

"Just being counted on, whether I get opportunities on the power play and penalty kill, and being counted on to be on the ice at the end of games," Abdelkader said. "I feel like I am a player that can contribute not only statistically in the points category but overall, shift-by-shift, helping us be better whether it's offensive zone possession or being good defensively, being a hard worker and setting an example on the ice for the rest of the guys."

Being bumped back to the third line didn't alter his mind-set at all.

"It doesn't change my game," he said. "Obviously when I am playing with Z and Franzen I am counted on more offensively to produce. But as far as my game, it's still the same. I don't have to change much.

"Whether I am with Z and Franzen or Helmer and Andy, we can still produce. Even if we're the third line and being counted on as more of a checking line, we still can be a line that creates offensive chances."

If Abdelkader, right now, is the player he is going to be the rest of his career, it would be just fine with the team's captain.

"He's so important," Zetterberg said. "It's easy to forget about him. He always does his work and very seldom gets the credit. As a coach, having a player like Abdelkader must be real nice to have. You can put him anywhere from the first line to the fourth line and he will do his job and do it well."