Beyond The Benches

Go Beyond The Benches w/ Justin Abdelkader

Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader is off to the best offensive start of his career.  The 27-year-old, left-winger had seven goals and eight assists through 24 games before injuring his shoulder last week during a contest against the New Jersey Devils. It should not come as a surprise that Abdelkader finished the game. The Michigan-native played over 20 minutes on the Red Wings top-line with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, as well as scoring a power play goal to help the Red Wings defeat the Devils 5-4.

“It was a good play on the power-play, moving the puck, I thought we did a good job that way.” Abdelkader said.  “I gave it down to Z [Henrik Zetterberg], and tried to pop into an open area and [Zetterberg] made a great play to me and I knew I had to get it over [Cory Schneider’s] pad. So it was kinda a bang-bang play in front [of the net].”

Bang-bang plays have been part of Abdelkader’s game all season-long. He is closing in on surpassing his career-high 28 points scored in 2013-14 in which he played 70 games.  He already has 15 points at the quarter-season mark.

“I think it’s all part of growing as a player in this league. I feel more confident.” Abdelkader said. “Obviously I’m getting an opportunity to be playing with some really good players, so I know I’m going to get the puck more, and be counted-on more offensively.”

Abdelkader certainly has reasons to be scoring more points than usual.  This season he has been getting first-line minutes and playing alongside the likes of superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

“I’ve done it whether it’s been in the American League or college; I’ve done it at other levels.” Abdelkader said. “I’ve shown spurts of [offensive skill] before but it’s part of growing as a player, putting your time in this league, and getting more comfortable.”

Abdelkader has shown that he can score at other levels.  He scored 80 points in 28 games during the 2003-04 season while playing for his high school, Muskegon Mona Shores, located in Michigan. Then he went on to play for the Michigan State Spartans where he scored 95 points throughout his three seasons.  Then Abdelkader was chosen by the Detroit Red Wings at the 2005 NHL Entry Draft in the second-round.

“It’s really exciting, it’s a dream come true as a Michigan-born to play for your hometown team that I grew up rooting for.” Abdelkader said. “It’s extra special for me and it’s been a blessing to be able to play my whole career here. It’s been a lot of fun.  I just want to get out there and do my part, work hard, do what I can to make the team better night-in and night-out.”

He credits his minor hockey coach Shawn Zimmerman for molding him into the player that he is today. Zimmerman coached Abdelkader from when he was a pee-wee up until he left high school to play juniors in Cedar Rapids (USHL).

“Shawn Zimmerman, he was big for me.  He was my coach from about grade-six, all the way to my junior year of high school.” Abdelkader said. “He really stressed playing a 200-foot game, in our zone and in the offensive zone, being physical, finishing checks; that’s always been a part of my game. I give him a lot of credit and pushing me to my limits and helping me get better each year.”

The Red Wings are currently holding on to a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.  Playing for the Detroit, there is always a high-level of expectation on the Red Wings to be a contender every year.  They currently hold an NHL-record of 23 consecutive post-season appearances.

“I think it starts from the leadership group on down and we’ve had tremendous leaders here throughout my time that I’ve been here.  They’ve done a great job seeing that the team is prepared here night-in night-out.” Abdelkader said. “I give Babs [Mike Babcock] a lot of credit. He expects attention to detail, give it 100% effort for each night. Obviously there’s gonna be games where you don’t feel the best, things don’t go your way but you can still put the effort out there. Work before skill.  He’s done a tremendous job and I think the leaders have done a great job too.”

 

Bonus Insight. 


 

Because Justin Abdelkader is privy to dropping the mitts every once in a while, Beyond The Benches asked him who is the toughest player he’s ever fought against.

“Ryane Clowe. I fought him when he was in San Jose. He’s really tough and strong.  He’s hard to push off-balance because he’s so strong and heavy on his skates.”

 

 

James Stolfi is a journalist from the New York metro area covering the NHL Metropolitan Division. He can be contacted on Twitter @JamesStolfi