TRAVERSE CITY – Justin Abdelkader has come a long way in his NHL career.
Going from a third- or fourth-line energy type center, Abdelkader finds himself on the wing with two of the more talented forwards in the league – Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
“Everyone thinks it’s easy to play with me and Pav, but it’s kind of tough,” Zetterberg said. “You don’t see the puck that often. (Tomas Holmstrom’s) been trying to tell everyone that for five or six years but no one believed him. It takes a while to understand the way we play. It’s good we have camp and exhibition games, hopefully we can only get better.”
Abdelkader stood out during training camp, leading all players with three goals.
“For me, I just try to keep it simple, and obviously it’s always the best when Pav or Z have the puck on their stick,” Abdelkader said. “I know that. They’re so good whether it’s in the open ice or in the corners defensively, I just try to do my part and pull the rope.
“I know the areas I need to go in and I know where my game needs to be, which is in the corners and down low in front of the net, strong defensively,” Abdelkader continued. “So I try to build off of that. I know what I need to get better on each year and each game. I just try to better myself as I progress through my hockey career.”
Abdelkader scored a career-high 10 goals last season, due in large part to playing alongside Datsyuk.
But he did struggle for the most part to find the back of the net on a consistent basis. That didn’t stop Wings coach Mike Babcock from keeping him with the crafty center because of the elements he provided to the line – size, puck-retrieval ability, net-front presence and physicality.
“Everyone’s got to command their share of ice-time and obviously Abdelkader is off to a good start,” Babcock said. “A lot of people can see he’s playing with good players, but he’s playing with a lot of heart every day. That’s what he does, so when you play hard, you work hard, good things happen for you.
“I think confidence is the hardest thing to get and you have to earn it and no one can give it to you,” Babcock added. “He’s an every-dayer. He’s works hard and he’s gotten better. He took advantage of an opportunity last year and it gets better and better and now he’s making more plays for those guys and he understands that when they give him the puck to give it back to them.”
But just how long he stays with Datsyuk and Zetterberg remains to be seen.
If the Wings’ second line – Johan Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss – don’t produce much offensively changes will be made.
“We have to have more than one group going, we have to have a bunch of groups going, so we’ll see what happens here,” Babcock said.
“There’s always going to be changes,” Abdelkader said. “There are going to be guys moving around, different things are going to happen. For me, I just have to go out and play my game, play hard and let everything else take care of itself. Whether I’m playing with Pav or Z or however it is, I’m going to try to do what I can to help the team.”
Babcock has floated out there about possibly adding Daniel Cleary to play alongside Datsyuk and Zetterberg.
“He’s a good skater, he’s one guy who can do the work for us in the zone, go and get pucks, go in front of the net,” Zetterberg said of Abdelkader. “He looks even faster this year than he was last year.”
Because of Abdelkader’s efforts he attended the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in the offseason in hopes of being named to the team that competes at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“USA Hockey probably has the most depth at their camp in so long, so to be invited is a tremendous honor,” Abdelkader said. “If I ever got the chance to represent my country it would be the biggest honor in the world. I feel like I’m pretty patriotic and I love and support everything in this country and what we do and what we’re for. I think that tournament is no different. Going and representing your country on the international stage – I had the opportunity before – and there’s nothing like it.”