By Dave Waddell –
The popular parlance is to call players like Drew Miller and Justin Abdelkader plumbers.
They’re the hard-working, blue-collar types that fix holes in your line-up.
Detroit GM Ken Holland has another word he feels better describes the value of the two former Michigan State Spartans to the Wings.
“They’re guys, when you put a team together, they’re glue players,” Holland said. “They finish out your team.
“You can’t have 12 play-making centermen or 12 shooters. You need lots of ingredients.
“They bring a different dimension to our team.”
The two Michigan natives couldn’t have arrived in more different ways in Detroit.
Abdelkader was a second-round draft pick in 2005 and had scored the NCAA-championship winning goal for MSU in 2007. He had some offensive upside to go with solid body frame that might allow him to nip out the edges of being a second-line forward.
Miller, who played his senior season with Abdelkader in East Lansing, was a defensive specialist. He was a CCHA Defensive Player of the year with a lanky body and ability to skate that made him a nuisance.
However, Miller was traded by Anaheim after a couple seasons to Tampa and then placed on the waiver wire after only playing 14 games for the Lightning in the fall of 2010.
Detroit claimed him in November 2010 to help them deal with a rash of injuries, but Miller proved better than just a stand-in.
“Ryan Martin, my assistant manager, was aware of him from college,” Holland said. “We knew him from Michigan State.
“He’s a Miller. The Millers have been a very good hockey family, so you go a little bit on bloodlines. He was the CCHA Defensive Player of the Year.
“There wasn’t a lot of risk claiming him and we were looking for players.
“We liked him, but we didn’t think he’d be scoring 10 to 15 goals every season.
“His offensive game is a little bit late-blooming. His calling card was defensive hockey.
“We took a flyer on him.”
After the Wings claimed him he scored 10 goals in Detroit that season. He added another 10 last year before establishing career-highs in points (25) and goals (14) through 77 games this season.
“It’s just getting confidence and experience,” Miller, said noting him and Abdelkaer had both played fewer than 300 NHL games.
“The more we play, the more confidence we’re getting with playing at this level and playing more minutes. It’s hand-in-hand, the more you play the more confident you get.”
In Miller’s case, the confidence is obvious. He’s doing things with the puck, being patient and shooting more, that you rarely saw in his first season in Detroit.
“Last year, at times, he was a healthy scratch,” Holland said. “This year, he’s in the line-up every night.
“I like him because he’s rangy and he can skate. He’s really good defensively. He kills penalties.
“When you score 14 or 15 goals on the third and fourth line, that’s a lot of goals in a league where, if you don’t get specialty team time, it’s hard to score 20 goals.
“He’s just gotten more confidence.”
Miller and Abdelkader have been frequently paired together with Darren Helm or Dan Cleary this season.
They’ve formed an effective third unit with either teammate.
“We’ve kind of been counted on the past few years to create the energy and be hard on the other team’s defense and I think we’ve just taken that to the next level and getting a little more offensive,” Miller said.
“I think we’re finding that chemistry to play a little more offensively and the puck’s going in, so it’s good for the team. You need that secondary scoring.”
While Miller’s speed is his calling card, Abdelkader announces his presence in a more noisy fashion. He’s consistently Detroit’s top producer when it comes to dishing out the hits.
He’s even gotten the flippers off to get involved in a career-high six fights.
“I think that’s what we want to be known as, more like a lunch pail type line,
blue-collar, hard work,” said Abdelkader, who has eight goals and 22 points in 78 games.
“There’s probably not going to be a lot of fanciness going on, toe-dragging all that stuff. It’s just grind and hard work.”
It’s work that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Red Wings’ brass.
“He’s had a good year,” Holland said. “He’s 25 and just coming into his prime.
“You look at Val Filppula, who is now 27, and people wonder why he’s taken a jump this year? It’s a tough league.
“Abby is an important guy to our team because he gives us a different dimension.
“He’s got some finesse. He kills penalties. He’s physical, in on the forecheck. He can fight if he has to.
“He’s an important player for us.”
In Holland’s estimation Abdelkader isn’t likely to become a big-time scorer in five years, but that doesn’t make him any less important than the team’s snipers.
“Maltby, Draper and McCarty were an important ingredient to our team in the late 90s and 2000s,” Holland said. “They were a completely different ingredient than Fedorov and Yzerman were.
“Abby is the same. He’s different than Zetterberg and Datsyuk.
“He plays a grinding game. In a playoff series, some nights you need skill and some nights you need grinding.
“He’s more experienced, comfortable and confident.”
Holland said he envisions Abdelkader’s most effective role being on the third line.
“On a good team, he’s a real good support player,” Holland said.
“The more ingredients you can bring as a player, the more opportunities. I would compare him to the Maltbys, the McCartys, Drapers, and Lapointes.
“He’s not a star, but he’s a real important guy because you’re putting together a team and he brings some real important ingredients.”
One of the ingredients that matters perhaps to fans, but not Holland, is the local content they bring to the Wings.
Holland likes that the team can have a pair of Michiganders, but feels where a player is born is irrelevant in the Wings’ equation for success.
“It’s got value if you’re dead last and trying to sell tickets,” Holland said.
“At the end of the day, if you have a winning program and the 20 players you got are from Moose Jaw and you’re in first place, fans are coming out.
“We’ve had Brian Rafalski (Dearborn), but at the end of the day you want to win. It’s great to have somebody if you can.
“We have two Michiganders, but that’s not why they’re on the team. We’re not getting into debates about players based on where they’re born.”