Someone is going to pay.
Next summer, if the Red Wings don’t act accordingly, some NHL team is going to back a Brinks truck up to Justin Abdelkader’s driveway and load bags of money onto a dolly and wheel it inside his home.
If the Red Wings don’t break out Mike Ilitch’s checkbook and write a fat one, Abdelkader will be playing in a different burg when the 2016-17 season starts.
In the world of ice hockey at the NHL level, the next best thing to owning all your own teeth is to be in the prime of your career, coming off a fantastic season and entering the last year of your contract, seeing free agency looming on the horizon.
We’re talking unrestricted free agency—none of this pretend free agency where your employer can match offers without you having any say in the matter.
Abdelkader, the Red Wings’ Michigan-reared power forward, is 28 years old. His type of player is one that’s adored and coveted in the league—a big man who isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty, who can pop some pucks into the net and who won’t back down.
Abdelkader, currently in his prime, has a chance to be the closest thing the Red Wings have had to Brendan Shanahan since, well, the Red Wings had Brendan Shanahan.
Shanny’s game was a modern day version of Gordie Howe’s, where a goal, an assist and a scrap was a night at the office.
Or think Joey Kocur, who was one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen play in the NHL. Kocur never lost a battle for the puck in the corner. Ever.
Abdelkader is signed through June 30, 2016. After that, when midnight strikes, it will be a league free-for-all to acquire the Michigan State grad and Muskegon native’s services.
Unless the Red Wings step in and shanghai Abdelkader to a long-term contract extension.
This is no joke. The Red Wings can’t let Abdelkader go. There really isn’t anyone else on the roster who can, right now, step in and do what Abdelkader does for 17 minutes (not including time in the penalty box) on a nightly basis.
We all knew that Abdelkader was scrappy and pugnacious and relentless, especially along the boards, which is the slop to his pig.
But then, last season, no. 8 broke out another aspect of his game—that of consistent scorer.
It kind of came out of nowhere, not that Abdelkader hadn’t shown a bit of a scoring touch previously. He just hadn’t done it throughout the course of an 82-game season, like he did in 2014-15.
Last season, Abdelkader took his own personal record book and tore it up with his bare, calloused hands.
He set record highs in every offensive category you can think of: goals (23); assists (21); points (44); power play goals (8); shots on goal (154); scoring percentage (14.9); game-winning goals (5); and average time on ice (17:55). He even set a career high in penalty minutes, with 72. He ran the statistical table at Hockey-Reference.com.
So what does Abdelkader do NOW?
He is saying all the right things that a professional athlete should say when he knows that the dollars will be rolling in soon, from somewhere.
The comments were made to the Detroit News, and they were pretty much boilerplate.
“You try to not to think about (free agency) too much because then it starts affecting your game,” Abdelkader told the News’ Ted Kulfan. “You just go out and do your best to make a case for yourself. All you can do is take care of yourself and let the business side take care of itself.”
It’s pretty much true, of course, if not Earth-shattering.
But anyone can have a great year when they’re not a pending free agent. The trick is to maintain the higher standard that you set, when you know there is a pot of gold waiting at the end of the upcoming season.
So in that respect, what Abdelkader said about not letting free agency affect your game, is dead-on accurate. After last season, what we expect from him is different. It’s no longer acceptable to return to the old days of grit and 10 goals.
The Red Wings aren’t oblivious. They know how much they need Abdelkader wearing the Winged Wheel for years to come. But Darren Helm, another vital asset, is unrestricted next summer as well. And several other younger players will be restricted free agents.
In the salary cap world, some hard decisions and some fancy financial footwork await GM Kenny Holland.
But first and foremost must be Abdelkader’s future.
For the player’s part, he must perform. No question. But the Red Wings would be wise to lock Abdelkader up ASAP, rather than wait for the whole season to play out and take their chances.
The Red Wings don’t want their own Ndamukong Suh or Max Scherzer to contend with.
So it’s fair to say that Abdelkader will, in fact, be rewarded primarily for what he did last season, with the Red Wings putting their faith (and cash) in him to be a top-line forward for the next five-to-seven years.
This is the way pro sports works when it comes to free agency: you’re mainly paid for what you’ve already done, as opposed to what is expected out of you several years hence. This makes for some oddball contracts that will haunt teams down the line, but there you have it.
Pay up, because if you don’t, someone else will.
There are, I would say, 29 other teams in the NHL who would be delighted to see Justin Abdelkader pull on their sweater every night. This is an All-Star in the making, and truth be told, possibly a future captain.
Abdelkader knows it. He can see it. He can taste it. But this might be his most challenging year, upcoming, because of what lies ahead. It will be 82 games and six straight months of Christmas Eves, trying to get to sleep knowing what will be under the tree the next morning.
“Obviously you want to stay (in Detroit) but you also know it’s a business,” Abdelkader said. “You just don’t know (what’ll happen). I’m just going to focus on having another good year and we’ll see what happens.”
The Red Wings shouldn’t let this thing get anywhere near the realm of suspenseful.