Versatile Justin Abdelkader’s game seems to fit Red Wings’ style

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — It was fitting Justin Abdelkader scored the way he did.

The final game of the regular season, April 7 against the New York Islanders, Abdelkader scored a definitive career milestone goal — the 100th goal of his career.

And it couldn’t have happened in a more perfect way.

Off Abdelkader’s foot, as he was battling near the crease, a goal that required video review, then officially given the go-ahead as a goal.

Fitting, that it wasn’t some blast off the rush or nifty wraparound that would be on all the highlight shows.

Just off Abdelkader’s skate, and admittedly close to a kicking motion.

“Only fitting it went off my foot and not my stick,” said Abdelkader, talking about a goal that gave him 13 for the season. “I didn’t know if they were going to overturn that one at first. I was glad they kept it a goal.”

Abdelkader has made it a cornerstone of his career to be near the net, given linemates such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk he’s played with often in his career.

The veteran creative centers, particularly Datsyuk, have used Abdelkader’s body as almost a target during games.

“Over the year I know that when I’m in front of the net I have to be ready,” Abdelkader said. “Whether it’s off my stick or, Pavel would sometimes shoot it off my body on purpose. He wouldn’t say he would — but he would sometimes.

“When you’re playing with Z, you have to be ready at all time. He sees the ice so well and always seems to make the right plays.”

Abdelkader rebounded from a disappointing 2016-17 season in which he only played 64 games due to injuries, posting a career-low (for a non-lockout season) 21 points, with only seven goals and 14 assists.

Abdelkader had 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists) in 75 games this season, with four power-play goals (and nine points), and played in a variety of roles.

Always a physical player, Abdelkader was credited with a team-high 174 hits.

“That’s probably his greatest strength, the ability to play in a lot of different situations,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “He can play in a shutdown role. He can be a complementary winger. A net-front presence. He brings physicality. He’s got good skill, he can play the power play. He can penalty kill.

“He definitely has that type of versatility and that’s important to have on a team.”

Going forward, as Blashill and his coaching staff incorporate a more pronounced hard-charging, north-south, forechecking style of play into the Red Wings’ style, a player such as Abelkader will become increasingly valuable.

The Red Wings became that kind of team, gradually, this season, and Abdelkader sensed that from the Red Wings, and many other teams around the NHL.

“The game is changing, for sure,” Abdelkader said. “Most teams are playing that north-south game, so you have to be to be skating, forechecking, and getting pucks back.

“We’ve done a pretty good job, but you have to make sure you’re being strong at those lines, especially your defensive blue line and their offensive blue line. You have to make sure you’re not turning pucks over.”

Heading into his 10th full season next year, Abelkader smiled when remembering how the game was played when he debuted on the Red Wings roster.

“When I first came into the league it was more about puck possession,” Abdelkader said. “I played with Pav and he said, ‘Don’t dump the puck in. You value the puck and you keep the puck because it’s hard to get back.’

“I said all right. That was engraved in my head right away.”

Abdelkader has evolved into one of the Red Wings’ elders the past few seasons, on a roster that is constantly getting younger.

He feels the improvement some young players such as Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi made this season will bode well for the future.

“We’ve had a lot of growth from within, a lot of players made strides this year, big strides,” Abdelkader said. “Not (being) in the playoffs, it’s frustrating and not a fun position to be in. We have to learn from our experiences this season.”