Abdelkader: Hard to Say, Hard to Play (Against)

He played his college hockey at Michigan State, which is like saying an actor studied under Strasberg.

They manufacture NHL players in East Lansing; been doing so for years. The university may as well stamp each skater with a serial number.

It was the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals. Justin Abdelkader was 22 and had one of those funny last names that took the folks around Detroit a little bit to pronounce without tying their tongues in knots. Kind of like Yzerman, which was actually butchered more than you care to know when the 18-year-old joined the Red Wings in 1983.

All we knew of Abdelkader at the time was that he had played at MSU, which was all we really needed to know. It was like in the heyday of Michigan football—if you weren’t familiar with an offensive lineman but then found out he played on the O-line in Ann Arbor, automatically the guy reaped all benefits of doubt.

Abdelkader, a left wing wearing no. 8—the sweater of Igor Larionov from the Yzerman-Cup days—was suddenly in the Red Wings’ playoff lineup in 2009, despite playing just two regular season games with the team.

Justin WHO?

A little research turned up more on the player the guys in the dressing room called “Abby.”

He scored 24 goals with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins in 76 games. OK fine. But he also amassed 102 penalty minutes, which is what really got him to Detroit in time for the postseason in 2009.

The Red Wings, since they started winning Stanley Cups again in 1997, have been more about finesse than grit. They would bring in a goon now and again (think Brad May and Aaron Downey) but ultimately those types wouldn’t stick to the roster.

But it wasn’t fighting that was missing; it was the hard-nosed guy who would go into the corners and not come out unless he had the puck or a bloody nose. Both was even better.

Abby was that guy, though he was fresh from Grand Rapids and just a couple years removed from the CCHA.

It’s not atypical in hockey to barely play in the regular season then be thrust into the playoffs as a regular. Look no further than Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who appeared in just six games for the 1970-71 Canadiens before leading them to the Stanley Cup in the spring.

In fact, Dryden won the Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1972.

So here came Abdelkader in 2009 and before his name could roll off our tongues cleanly, he had scored two goals in the Finals against Pittsburgh, in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit. If you believe in numerology, Abdelkader scored in the third period of each game—at the 2:46 mark in Game 1 and at 2:47 in Game 2.

Today, Abdelkader is 27 (he’ll be 28 in February) and he’s no longer a raw rookie—he’s one of the Red Wings’ young veterans who can do a little bit of everything. And he’s still not afraid to get his nose bloodied battling for a loose puck. He just likes to battle, period.

Abdelkader plays hockey every night like he woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. He’s not a goon or even an enforcer, but he’s always up for some extracurricular activities. He’s one of the few Red Wings who seems to like it when there’s pushing and shoving after the whistle. At 6’1″ and 219 pounds, Abby’s not a runt, but he plays like a small dog that won’t let go of your pant leg.

That’s all well and good but this season Abdelkader has added another dimension to his game—that of goal scorer.

In his first 14 games, Abdelkader has scored five goals to go along with five assists. It’s a small sample size, but that extrapolates to about 29 goals and 29 assists. To compare, Abdelkader’s career high for points in a season is 28, set last year. His career high in goals is 10, done twice (the past two seasons).

On the current Red Wings roster, Abdelkader is a rarity: he’s not ancient, or a kid. I know it seems like every Red Wing either still has the scent of Grand Rapids on him or Ben Gay. But Abdelkader is that tweener—the player who is still young enough to have his legs but not so old that his career clock is ticking.

Frankly, it’s a welcome change of pace.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Abdelkader wears an “A” for alternate captain on his sweater soon, maybe even this season if one of the regular As—Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall and sometimes Johan Franzen—goes down with injury.

But it’s going to happen, sooner or later.

And if Abdelkader keeps putting pucks in the net with the same frequency as he has so far this season, well…Henrik Zetterberg isn’t getting any younger, if you know what I mean.

The maturation of Abdelkader into a team leader is a storyline that’s flown under the radar with the media types in town. The press is enamored with the Griffins-turned-Red Wings and with the continued magic of Pavel Datsyuk. They like to talk to coach Mike Babcock because of his candidness.

Yet the emergence of Abdelkader as a young veteran who the kids can emulate, and who just might be the team’s next captain, gets lost in the shuffle.

But that’s OK; they can’t ignore Abby forever.

Something tells me that he simply won’t allow it.

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