East Lansing — Spend a few minutes with Justin Abdelkader and you sense he is approaching this season with urgency.
It’s understandable, given the way the NHL is these days.
Abdelkader is 32 and entering his 11th season, which in today’s NHL can be dinosaur territory.
Abdelkader is also coming off a season in which he scored a career-low six goals, and equaled a career-low with 19 points.
There is an urgency to rebound, to show he is still an effective NHL player.
“It was frustrating, just frustrating for sure,” Abdelkader said Tuesday after completing the second day of the Spartan Pro Camp at Munn Ice Arena. “In this league there are nights you can go out and feel good about how you played and you’ve had (offensive) chances, but if you’re not contributing offensively and you don’t have those points and continue to look and have zeroes on the scorecard that build up … your confidence can take a hit.”
Abdelkader’s 7-year contract, with a salary cap hit of $4.25 million per year, ends after the 2022-23 season. On a roster with several similar generous deals, it’s Abdelkader’s that fans on social media often single out as most generous, considering his performance of late.
Just know, that Abdelkader wasn’t, and hasn’t been, pleased, either.
That’s why Abdelkader got on the ice earlier than ever this summer to train, he’s been concentrating on skill work, and heading into training camp next month is eager to tackle whatever role is given him.
“You constantly, consistently have to prove yourself in this league, it’s an every-day league,” Abdelkader said. “When you have a down year by your standards, or by whatever standards, you make sure to refocus that much more. I still think I have a lot of game in me. As long as you’re healthy, and I’m healthy, I still have a lot to give and play in this league.
“I still think I can contribute and be a player that this team can count on.”
With the acquisition of Adam Erne recently to an already lengthy list of young wingers the organization has, it’s fair to wonder where — and for how long — Abdelkader fits onto this roster.
Players such a Filip Zadina, Michael Rasmussen, Evgeny Svechnikov and Taro Hirose will be looking for roles this season, or in the near future, and replacing someone.
On the surface, young, big, rugged wingers like Rasmussen, Erne, to a degree Svechnikov, are similar to a younger Abdelkader.
But Abdelkader feels he can contribute and strengthen the roster in a variety of ways.
“I’ve played a bunch of different roles over the last number of years,” Abdelkader said. “For me, I have to be prepared for anything, and try to find ways to contribute and that’s what my focus is — to be a player who can lead these young guys and helps us try to get the best out of each other.”
As last season careened out of control — Abdelkader went 40 games without a goal at one point — confidence became an issue for the veteran.
“All the players with confidence in this league are different players than when they don’t have confidence,” Abdelkader said. “When you get it (confidence), you’re trying to keep it and it’s hard to keep that confidence when you don’t have it and hard to get back.
“Whatever line I’ve been on, I just try to find ways for us to contribute the best we can, and sometimes when you’re on lines that aren’t counted on to score as much, you have to make sure to contribute whatever way you can.”
Abdelkader began on-ice workouts this summer in June, about a month or two ahead of what he would have early in his career.
A camp like the one at Michigan State this week gives Abelkader an opportunity to work on skill development and another chance to adjust to an evolving NHL style.
“The game is fast, as fast as it’s ever been and you have to make sure to give yourself the best opportunity to go out there and play,” Abdelkader said. “You’re constantly trying to find ways to get better and better your game.
“For me, it’s spending more time this year on the ice than I have at times (in the past). There’s a lot of skill that’s in the game now. A lot of one-on-one, and not as much wall battles. There are wall battles, but it’s not like guys are having to clutch and grab. It’s a more fluid game, and even how you train and how you get your body ready is different than it used to be.
“As you get older, you have to do different things to make sure you’re keeping your skating legs.”
When Abdelkader came into the league full-time in 2009, being big and strong and physical were characteristics that were valued.
“When I came out of (exit) meetings, it was about getting bigger and stronger and I was spending more time in the weight room,” Abdelkader said. “Now you see some of the best players in the league, like Mitch Marner and Johnny Gaudreau, they’re very skilled and they’re not big and can’t throw a lot of weight around, but they’re skilled, and it’s the skating, and it’s just how fluid the game is these days.
“So, it’s just about working on those parts of the game.”
Abdelkader hasn’t talked at length with either new general manager Steve Yzerman or coach Jeff Blashill this summer but expects to before the start of training camp.
“I just have to be ready for whatever role I will be put in, and then making sure I can contribute that way,” Abdelkader said. “I’ve been fortunate in my career playing with some real good players, whether it’s been Pavel (Datsyuk) or Z (Henrik Zetterberg), and I’ve been on fourth lines a lot, especially at the start of my career.
“I’ve got to find ways to contribute. We have a lot of good, young players, and hey, I’m all about winning and team success and making sure the young players are staying on the right path and that’s part of my job, too — as I get older, to make sure I’m a guy these guys can count on to talk to and push them.
“The Red Wings have built a tradition here and how to work over the years since Steve’s first year here. It’s about keeping that culture around and making sure guys know that’s how we do it here.”