Dear Abby: What happened to you?

Published Oct. 13, 2019

If Justin Abdelkader’s career didn’t go in the toilet, there wouldn’t be any question about who the next Red Wings captain would be, as there is now.

The team is currently going with four alternates, as there’s apparently some hesitation in pinning the “C” on Dylan Larkin, as has been bantied about for quite some time.

But the point should be moot. The Red Wings shouldn’t be considering going all Steve Yzerman/1986 on Larkin, the 23-year-old wonder.

The C should be Abdelkader’s. But not only is Abby unworthy, his role on the team is undefined.

Summer of 2016: Lock him up!

Full disclosure: I wanted the Red Wings to lock up the MSU grad in the summer of 2016, ensuring that he not be able to test the free agent waters. I felt strongly that Abdelkader was a future team captain, due to his grittiness, nose for the net, his heading into his prime and his tenure with the Red Wings (he debuted in 2008).

The Red Wings took my (ahem) advice, and signed Abdelkader to a seven year, $29.75 million deal in 2016. Captaincy after Henrik Zetterberg’s waning but brilliant career seemed to be the logical next step.

But the Abdelkader who we knew at age 29 when he inked his big contract, has vanished. Poof!

He’s on the wrong side of 30 now (he’ll be 33 in February) and I think it’s safe to say that we won’t see the same no. 8 as we did pre-contract. Ever.

But why?

Before 2016’s deal, Abby was about as complete a forward as you could hope to have in the NHL. He had popped in 42 goals the previous two seasons. He had amassed 192 penalty minutes. But more than those tangible numbers were the intangibles.

Abdelkader was hard to play against. He agitated. He got under people’s skin. He was always around the puck—in the corners, in open ice. Even on the nights when he didn’t register a point, you knew he had played. He made his presence felt.

All that is gone now.

Image result for justin abdelkader

No identity, no presence

Abdelkader once had an identity. Now, he doesn’t. Gone are those intangibles. He’s just another forward. On many nights he’s invisible. The hard numbers went down the tubes as well. In the three seasons combined after signing the big deal, Abby has scored just 26 goals. This season is the same as those three: zero goals in the Red Wings’ first five ganes.

Because this nosedive into oblivion has coincided with the Red Wings’ rebuild and the emergence of youngsters like Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Betuzzi, Andreas Athanasiou et al, Abdelkader almost seems to get a pass from the fans and the media. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t a free agent signed away from another team, like the Stephen Weiss debacle a few years ago.

Abdelkader, by all rights, should be booed out of town. He’s committing larceny every night in plain view. But because the team is in transition, all is forgiven, I guess.

By all accounts, no one in the Red Wings organization has given up on Abdelkader. Coach Jeff Blashill, just before the season started, spoke of Abby playing “on the verge of recklessness.” Blashill commented that just because a guy who once scored 20 goals hasn’t done so in a while, it doesn’t mean that he can’t do it again.

Those are either words of encouragement or of grand delusion.

Untradeable

To his credit, Abdelkader, in a fit of self-reflection, knew that his recent play has been unacceptable, and thus engaged in an intense off-season training regimen.

“More focus on speed and quickness,” said Abdelkader of his training. “The game’s so fluid, so fast, I’m just making sure I’m giving myself the best opportunity to go out and be the player I know I can be.”

The trouble is, the player that Abdelkader thinks he can be, might not be the player he is now able to be. Hockey players who are about to turn 33 typically don’t find the fountain of youth and turn back the clock.

But what else can the Red Wings be, other than patient? They can’t trade Abby, with this $4.75 million payroll hit per season and with three years left on his contract after next spring. At least, they can’t trade him without swallowing large portions of the deal whole.

They could cut him, but that simply hasn’t been the Red Wings’ style, although with new GM Steve Yzerman on board, you never know.

Abdelkader is holding the team hostage now. Believe it or not, despite his rotten production since 2016, he still holds the cards. His past performance gives management a glimmer of hope that he can recapture some of that, yet his most recent body of work suggests otherwise.

The big contract may be an albatross for the Red Wings, but it’s a lifeline for Abdelkader’s roster spot.

What I don’t understand is the lack of physical presence and the disappearance of his agitating, grating ways. Why did that have to go away with his scoring production? Honest to goodness, on many nights after a game I couldn’t tell you whether Abdelkader was in the lineup or not. If you had falsely told me that he was sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch, I would have believed you.

In a way, maybe this is all moot. Abdelkader doesn’t represent the future of the Red Wings. And he’s not why the team has missed the playoffs the past three springs.

But wouldn’t it be nice if, during this transition, Abdelkader could go back to being Abdelkader—even a little bit? Wouldn’t that help the cause in the short term?

Forget being the next captain of the Red Wings. All we wonder now is, how long can Justin Abdelkader remain on the team?

It’s quite a tumble, I tell you.

OK to add MLB Line to list of fine Red Wings’ forward trios of the past

Published Oct. 6, 2019

It’s one of the most iconic photographs in Detroit sports history, and indeed in all of hockey history.

Three forwards, in their blood red sweaters with the winged wheel on their chest, in mid-skate, closely bunched, smiling and looking down at the ice at a puck of which they are fully controlling.

I have no idea how many takes it took to capture the image, but you know the one. Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay. The Production Line. A wonderful take on the car industry in the Motor City, as well as the offensive prowess of that legendary, Hall of Fame trio in the late-1940s, early-1950s.

One of my prized possessions is the photo, signed by all three Red Wings. You can have it, if you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

The Red Wings had another iteration of the Production Line in the late-1960s. Howe was still on the right wing, but center Alex Delvecchio and left wing Frank Mahovlich flanked no. 9. They were the Production Line II.

Great lines of the past

The history of NHL hockey is adorned with many forward lines who earned nicknames. There was the Bruins’ Kraut Line of the 1940s, so named because of the German ancestry of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer.

The Rangers of the 1970s had the GAG (Goal a Game) line of Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert. The Sabres in that time had the French Connection (Rick Martin, Gilbert Perreault and Rene Robert). And on and on.

The Red Wings of 1987-88 used an unusual combination of Gerard Gallant, Steve Yzerman and Bob Probert to march to the league’s semifinals—a season in which Yzerman scored 50 goals for the first time in his career and Probert had a career year, potting 29 goals (despite 398 penalty minutes!) and breaking Howe’s franchise record for points in one playoff year (21).

The famous forward lines have lost their zing as coaches in the league frequently shuffle wingers and centers like playing cards, often within the same game.

MLB line?

Image result for larkin mantha bertuzzi

Yet the Red Wings of today have a line that I doubt coach Jeff Blashill will fool around with too much.

In Saturday night’s 5-3 victory over the Nashville Predators in their season opener, the Red Wings’ trio of Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi terrorized the Preds, figuring in four of the five goals.

In their last nine games dating back to last season, that line has tallied an astounding 47 points. Incidentally, the Red Wings are 7-2 in those games.

Get used to this unbalanced scoring for the Winged Wheelers, at least for the near future. Mantha, Larkin and Bertuzzi (they need a nickname, by the way) are, without question, the Red Wings’ no. 1 line—the same way that of the Aaron brothers, Hank is the no. 1 home run hitter.

But that’s OK. The Red Wings are building something, and unlike their counterparts who kick around baseballs in Comerica Park, the hockey rebuild has definitive light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. And it isn’t emanating from the equally proverbial oncoming train.

So while the other forwards—a mix of kids and veterans—get their sea legs and occasionally chip in a goal or two, the MLB line (working title) will be happy to be the dominant point producers.

“For us as a line, it’s huge,” Mantha said of the opening night onslaught of production. “We just right away come back to where we left off last year. It’s exactly what we wanted. This game just proves that we’re meant to be a first line together and hopefully we can stick around for the whole season.”

Are you listening, coach?

“They know how to play together,” Blashill said after Saturday’s game. “They kind of feed off each other. Dylan kind of drives the line with his energy. Bert is greasy, he’s skilled, he’s smart. And Mo has that great skill package. They’ve been a really good line together. They enjoy playing together and we’re going to need them to be great.” 

Other forwards must contribute

The Red Wings have other veteran forwards who, in their careers, have bobbed to the surface offensively with fine years. But most of those guys are well into their 30s. This is a full-on rebuild. The Frans Nielsens, Justin Abdelkaders, Darren Helmses and Val Filppulas likely won’t be in Detroit—or even active players—when GM Steve Yzerman’s project comes to fruition.

So it’s the MLB line or bust for now, on most nights. Veteran mucker Luke Glendening chipped in with a fine goal Saturday night as well, but make no mistake: the league will be filled with game plans for the Red Wings that pretty much will say, “Stop those no. 1 guys and we’ll take our chances with everyone else.”

The Predators, who accumulated 100 points last season and made the playoffs yet again, are considered one of the top teams in the West. But they had no answer for the MLB kids on Saturday. In fact, the Preds haven’t been able to figure out the Red Wings, period, lately. Saturday’s win was Detroit’s sixth straight in Nashville and the Preds are 1-10 against the Red Wings in their last 11 meetings. Go figure.

The chemistry of a successful forward line in hockey ought not to be underestimated. The game is so fast, so knowing the little things about your linemates such as where they like to position themselves in the attacking zone, how they like the puck to be served to them and so forth, is critical. There’s also a certain trust factor involved.

Mantha, after Saturday night’s first period, told Fox Sports Detroit’s Trevor Thompson that the MLB line is having fun and really enjoys playing together. “We’re three different types of players,” Mantha said, but in hockey that’s considered a positive for a forward line. Opposites really do attract.

The rest of the league will design its defense to do what it can to shackle the MLB line. That’s a given. But if the Red Wings can find some semblance of offense from their myriad of other forwards, the rebuild could take a big stride this season. Andreas Athanasiou, he of 30 goals scored last season, didn’t play on Saturday, don’t forget.

One down, 81 to go. Since the MLB season was so unkind to Detroit fans in 2019, it’s only fair that those initials bring a ray of sunshine on the ice this winter, eh?