Justin Abdelkader’s Gratuitous Extension

Twitter went ablaze on Wednesday evening when The Hockey Godfather let it be known that the Detroit Red Wings were close to locking UFA-to-be Justin Abdelkader up to a long-term deal. This wasn’t necessary a new revelation given that we’ve been hearing inklings about a potential extension for a while now, but the details themselves are so grotesque that the news produced a double take anyways.

Any way you slice it, there doesn’t really appear to be an uplifting angle for the Red Wings and their fans here, especially with it coming off of the heels of a summer in which teams generally seemed to have smartened up with regards to these sorts of transactions. I’m not sure if it was pride or admiration, but whatever it is, I felt it after nary a team backed up the Brinks truck for one-year wonder Matt Beleskey to the degree I suspected they might.

I don’t think that the Red Wings should get off scot-free here just because of the mystique they’ve generated as an organization with their sustained success in the past. This won’t end well for them.

I know that the NHL has been known to be a copy cat league, but you’d like to think that the people pulling the strings behind the scenes would be cognizant of things that history has taught us. That they’d use those cautionary tales to adapt and avoid the hazards those before them incurred.

We’ll use poor David Clarkson here because he’s the most recent and particularly obvious example, but the fact of the matter is that it’s hardly the only precedent that can be used to illustrate the point.

Here’s a rudimentary look at how Clarkson and Justin Abdelkader compared in their age 23-to-27 seasons:

Games Played Goals Assists 5v5 Points/60 Power Play Points Shooting %
David Clarkson 298 52 48 1.4 18 8.3
Justin Abdelkader 323 38 50 1.34 3 6.6

They were both certainly serviceable enough bottom-six assets for their respective teams, but nothing about those numbers screams difference-maker. Individuals with those resumes are readily available for peanuts and I suspect that everyone would agree it would be ludicrous to invest a bunch of millions of dollars over a bunch years for players like that.

In the following season each player enjoyed a marked spike in both usage and what appears to be effectiveness. Here are those numbers from their age-28 campaign:

Games Played Goals Assists 5v5 Points/60 Power Play Points Shooting %
David Clarkson 80 30 16 1.52 16 13.2
Justin Abdelkader 71 23 21 1.58 14 14.9

While different players develop at different speeds on their way into the league, it’s not often that you see a player completely break out to whole new heights when they’re entering their late-20s and have already been regular NHLers for five seasons. In fact, we now know that they should actually already be generally entering the declining portion of their playing career by then. Goal scorers in particular don’t tend to age all that gracefully.

Without a distinct change in skills, you’re just left investing in percentage-driven results which is the hockey equivalent of playing with fire. In David Clarkson’s case, he has shot just 7.8% in the three seasons since his “breakout” campaign, scoring just 30 times on 386 attempts on target. That horse doesn’t need anymore beating.

For Abdelkader last season, it was the perfect confluence of events. For starters, he benefitted from the cushy role of riding shotgun with Henrik Zetterberg for nearly 80% of his 5v5 minutes. While Zetterberg is getting up there in age these days, he’s still an exceptional hockey player that has made a career of shining a favourable light on the guys he shares the ice with. He was also the fifth most frequently used member of the Wings with the man advantage, receiving nearly 200 minutes of power play time (the ~60 such minutes he saw in ’13-’14 were previously his career high). All of that put together resulted in Abdelkader’s first foray into the 20-goal and 40-point plateaus as an NHLer.

None of this is to suggest that Abdelkader isn’t a useful player, because he is. Even before last season he could generally be counted upon to provide possession numbers in the black, and positive penalty differentials. It’s also pretty easy to see why the people that interact with him on a daily basis would be infatuated with the tenacity he plays the game with, and the effort he puts in. All of that is totally fine.

But the issue with this extension is the opportunity cost it comes with. For a team that’s already going to be right up against the cap, it’s a risky proposition to escalate the pay for a player like Abdelkader when they’ll presumably need to pony up for RFAs like Riley Sheahan, Teemu Pulkinnen, Danny DeKeyser and Petr Mrazek. And while the actual annual salary itself isn’t so big that it’ll do them in, the fact that he’ll be tied up on their books until he’s 36 is a concern.

It also speaks to a larger issue with the current incarnation of the Red Wings. It feels weird to say that about a team that has been the NHL’s model franchise for years, having remarkably made the playoffs 24 straight times. They’ve long been heralded for the impressive manner in which they conduct their business, starting with a sparkling draft record and the patience to allow those assets to properly season in the minors.

That run might be in jeopardy this year. Their current place in the Atlantic Division standings and win-loss record may not show it, but there’s been some splitting at the seams thus far. The adjustment from Mike Babcock to Jeff Blashill has been more than rocky, with the team posting disconcertingly uncharacteristic possession numbers.

Getting Pavel Datsyuk back eventually will certainly help, but it seems like a leap of faith to suggest that his return will mask all of their other concerns by itself. Their 47.5% Score-Adjusted possession rate is 25th, and their 43.8% High-Danger Scoring Chance rate is 28th. They’ve been bleeding shots and chances against, and if not for their two far and away best players being their goalies early on they’d be in serious trouble.

We’ll see whether things normalize as the season goes along, but the way they’ve been getting by so far isn’t a recipe for success. Much like the proposition of investing in an aging asset after just one uncharacteristically productive season which happens to have been predominantly propped up by a percentage spike. It may not happen this year, or next, but eventually this decision will come to roost.

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