Justin Abdelkader is the most underrated player on the Detroit Red Wings. In the series against the Boston Bruins, Abdelkader is drawing some pretty tough match ups and it’s his job to eat up some really tough minutes. Before I jump into the analysis, I want to say why I want to write this article: Mike Babcock gets a lot of grief from fans and media for playing Justin Abdelkader on a wing with Pavel Datsyuk. This article is going to talk about the things that Justin Abdelkader does that warrant him playing on a first line. I will use the goal Datsyuk scores in Game 1 as evidence of this claim. Abdelkader does not have the typical top 6 skill set, but he has a skill set that compliments players like Datsyuk very well.
Before we move on, I want to establish the skill set that Justin Abdelkader has as this is pretty vital to my argument. Justin Abdelkader is the best forechecker on the Detroit Red Wings. He is strong in the corners, and he protects the puck well. Justin Abdelkader has a skill set that generally doesn’t show much on the stat sheet. He doesn’t score a lot of goals, and he’s not really a playmaker. The only way he’s ever going to make a highlight reel is if he hits someone really hard, he doesn’t have the speed or hands to get around a defenseman or to finish strong on a breakaway. In essence Justin Abdelkader is a glorified grinder. So now you may be asking me why it is that I believe a glorified grinder should play with the top line while guys like Tatar don’t get top minutes, after all don’t you want your best players to play the most amount of minutes, right?
Well, yes and no. You want to create the 4 best combinations of players. This means that just because two players are good, doesn’t mean they will be good together. As evidence, I will cite the pairing of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin on Team Russia in Sochi, this pair was wildly ineffective. Think of each line combining to form one player, and trying to find the combination of skills to form the most productive trio. Mike Babcock’s philosophy is the more diversity you have on a line, the better. Let’s look at the top line of the Wings right now and assess their skills and see what makes this line effective. Pavel Datsyuk is the best player on that line, he plays great defense, he is shifty, and he is one of the best playmakers in the game. Let’s not forget his ability to create offense by himself, he has a great shot and he has the best hands in the world. Then there’s Johan Franzen, he is the finisher, although he doesn’t always shoot as much as we want, he’s got a great shot. His effectiveness depends on his line mates ability to get him the puck in high scoring areas. It’s hard to quantify exactly what Franzen is because he doesn’t use his skill set all that effectively, he is too passive without the puck and doesn’t like to use his body all that much. If he was more engaged he could be a premier power forward, but that argument is for another day. On this day, I want to talk about what Justin Abdelkader brings to this mix. He is the player who stands in front of the net and screens, he is the player who goes in corners and fights for the puck, and he is the player who will take the Tomas Holmstrom like beating.
But he does more than that, let’s see exactly what Justin Abdelkader does to help Datsyuk score the goal in Game 1. This play doesn’t happen without Abdelkader. This play will be looked at from a Wings perspective but more specifically, from the perspective of Justin Abdelkader. We are going to see what he does and why his contribution is crucial to this goal.
This is the beginning of the play. Franzen has the puck along the boards, and Abdelkader is at the top of the picture near the Wings bench. You’ll notice that there are three Bruins in surrounding Datsyuk, and that Abdelkader has gotten past them and has gotten himself a lot of open ice here. Onto the next one.
First off, we are going to ignore the poor play from Franzen here. He has Abdelkader streaking with space and if he gets him the puck it would give Datsyuk and to have a 2 on 2 with Franzen as a trailer, but that doesn’t happen and Franzen nearly turns the puck over. As we can see here, if not for Datsyuk this play becomes a 2 on 2 the other way. Franzen is not in position to get this puck and all it would take is Campbell to do a quick pass to Kelly and the Bruins have an equally good chance as the Wings end up getting. Although it is outside the picture, the Wings have both their defenseman behind this play and in good position to defend it. But that doesn’t happen, instead Datsyuk reaches back, pulls the puck between his legs and leaves all three Bruins forwards behind him, creating a 2 on 2 with Abdelkader entering the zone.
Now let’s look at Abdelkader. A 2 on 2 is one of the hardest rushes to execute. Generally, there is not enough time or space to really do much and the only way to have them work is to either make a great cross ice pass, go hard to the net, or do some position shifts and switch lanes. Abdelkader goes hard to the net here, but look at the way he does it. Instead of going to the outside, an easier play, he goes to the inside and causes some havoc. The lane that Abdelkader travels through takes Dougie Hamilton out of the play. Hamilton’s stick is on the outside of Abdelkader’s body, making it almost impossible for Hamilton to be aggressive on this play. This picture shows Abdelkader giving Datsyuk a lane to shoot and a lane to skate along the outside if he so chooses to do so. Hamilton’s stick being tied up makes it essentially a 2 on 1 and a half. Onto the next picture.
This picture is taken just after Datsyuk takes his shot. Things to notice here,
1) If Hamilton has his stick available to him, then he is able to get his stick in the lane and probably deflects the shot away from the goal.
2) At this point, Abdelkader is acting as a moving pick, this is legal because he keeps his feet moving and he is clearly going to the net, this is great body positioning from Justin Abdelkader.
3) Because Abdelkader moves so close to Hamilton he has now taken away his ability to defend. If Hamilton is able to step up on Datsyuk, the Pavs probably isn’t able to get a shot off, and if he does it may not get through to the net.
4) Look at the play from Rask’s perspective. Is there any way that Rask can see this puck? This is a great moving screen from Abdelkader and it blinds Rask from the shot.
5) Despite what most people are thinking, this is not a typical Datsyukian deke. He makes a great play in the defensive neutral zone to grab the puck and throw it between his legs but other than that he just kind of skates, cuts across the ice after he enters the offensive zone and then he shoots. The shot is not great by any means, and without the pick and screen from Abdelkader, this goal doesn’t happen. If Rask sees this shot, he saves it.
These are the kinds of plays that Abdelkader creates. He has great positioning and he is willing to drive hard to the net. Give Datsyuk all the credit you want, he is the best player on the Wings right now, but that goal gets scored because of Abdelkader.
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