Detroit Red Wings’ costly decision to cut Justin Abdelkader: Who will take his place?

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
 
| Detroit Free Press

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With uncertainty swirling around the start of the NHL season and in what capacity, if any, the AHL can function in 2020-21, cutting Justin Abdelkader makes sense. 

Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman placed Abdelkader on unconditional waivers for the purpose of a buyout Tuesday, a decision that will cost the Wings salary cap room for six years, but will open a roster spot.

Abdelkader’s play had been in decline since his former center, Pavel Datsyuk, left in 2016, and triggering a buyout was really the only option because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Under normal circumstances, the Wings could have waived Abdelkader and, once he cleared, assigned him to the Grand Rapids Griffins. That would have created roster room and provided a little more than $1 million in salary cap relief on Abdelkader’s $4.25 million average annual hit.

Taking that path, however, was waylaid by the pandemic. 

Buying out Abdelkader’s contract will count against the cap through 2025-26:  $1,805,556 in 2020-21, $2,305,556 in each of 2021-22 and 2022-23, and $1,055,556 in the following three years. The Wings have about $28 million in cap room, though a chunk of that is earmarked to re-sign restricted free agents Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi. 

[ Wings will pay Abdelkader not to play, evoking memories of Stephen Weiss ]

With financial flexibility at his disposal, this was a way for Yzerman to make the team more competitive by opening a spot among the bottom six forwards. Evgeny Svechnikov, a first-round pick from 2015 who is no longer waiver exempt, could be a fit. So could one of the other restricted free agents Yzerman is expected to re-sign: Adam Erne, who he acquired via trade in 2019; Dmytro Timashov, who Yzerman claimed off waivers last season, or Christoffer Ehn, a fourth-round pick from 2014.

There could also be a scenario in which Luke Glendening moves from center to wing, should 2017 first-round pick Michael Rasmussen earn a spot on the team. Ditto for 2018 first-round pick Joe Veleno. 

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Abdelkader is one of several veterans who will not be returning, joining defensemen Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley and goaltender Jimmy Howard. Since taking over as GM in 2019, Yzerman has made multiple changes to the roster he inherited, including: trading Andreas Athanasiou, Mike Green and Jacob de la Rose; opting not to re-sign Martin Frk, Thomas Vanek and Luke Witkowski; signing Valtteri Filppula and Patrik Nemeth and acquiring Robby Fabbri, Alex Biega, Brendan Perlini and Sam Gagner.

Abdelkader, drafted by the Wings 42nd overall in 2005, enjoyed his best seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16, when he played on a line with Datsyuk and recorded 20-goal seasons. That led to a seven-year, $29.75 million extension in November 2015, offered by then-general manager Ken Holland. But Abdelkader struggled to be a factor after Datsyuk left in 2016, scoring just seven goals the next season.

Abdelkader, 33, had just three assists in 49 games when the NHL paused the 2019-20 season on March 12. Neither a scoring threat nor a physical factor, his time with the team seemed at an end. Coach Jeff Blashill had made Abdelkader, an alternate captain, a healthy scratch on multiple occasions.

Once the buyout is completed, Abdelkader can sign with another team.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings will be published October 13 by Triumph Books. To order, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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