Three weeks ago, with the Red Wings reeling and about to embark on a west coast swing in Anaheim, Andreas Athanasiou had been struggling himself. After an injury that kept him out for a month of game action, the former Barrie Colt had just two points in ten games since, getting 14 minutes or more of ice time just three times in that span. It led head coach Jeff Blashill, who hasn’t been mum on Athanasiou’s consistency in particular in the past, to healthy scratch him in favor of Steve Ott, a frequent staple on Athanasiou’s wing when relegated to bottom-six duty. This came two games after he played just 5:13 on December 29th when he was benched for the entire third period against the Ottawa Senators. Blashill, again, seemed irked.
#RedWings Athanasiou logged 5:13, didn’t get off the bench in the third. Blashill: “It’s a coach’s decision. I’ll just leave it at that.”
— Ansar Khan (@AnsarKhanMLive) December 30, 2016
Now, from the outset, scratching the fastest and most electrifying player on your team seems foolish, and it is. It seems even more irritating when this player is not the first to make mistakes that have led to goals on a team that has many under-performers, but is singled out for doing so when he is one of the youngest at 22 years old. It has brought many questions about Blashill taking the dated “accountability” and “heart” arguments way too far with his line combinations and value of guys like Luke Glendening, a perennially awful possession player that plays in every game, even getting time on the top lines at one point. However, his treatment of Athanasiou is a blessing in disguise for what Blashill sees as his ceiling but does not get on a consistent basis.
Though Not An All-Star, Andreas Athanasiou Playing like One
Since the scratch, “Double A” has shown he’s had it with his head coach pissing him off and decided to give him the performance finger to the tune of six goals, nine points, and 29 shots the past 11 contests, the best stretch of his 71-game career by far. What’s more, the London, Ontario native has completely driven possession consistently with his 52.73 Corsi-for percentage and +5.5 Corsi relative team shot attempts when on ice versus when off ratio. Each rank third on the span just behind line mates Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen. Compare that to his first 23 games, when Athanasiou had just five goals and seven points, a -3.5 relative ratio and a below-average 47.83 Corsi-for percentage.
It has also coincided with him getting the most top-six minutes in a consistent stretch, playing over 14 minutes nine out of the 11 nights topping out at 19:06 in Boston with Glendening hurt, forming a solid trio with the offensively gifted hockey minds of Vanek and Nielsen. Both players before Athanasiou’s addition to the line were below-average possession drivers at 48.74% and 49.81% respectively. With Athanasiou, each is up over 54% and the entire line has a +22.2 Corsi Relative ratio. Blashill wanted consistency, and he’s gotten it with a focused Athanasiou working tremendously hard to stay in the lineup seeing mashing the fruits of his labor. It is just 11 games, but the following show why it should be a sign of things to come:
Backchecks like this using his speed that he’s been so known for in the offensive zone is quite encouraging to set up for plays where he needs no introduction towards forming great chemistry with his linemates in the process:
Of course, who could forget this one to cap off his electrifying flair:
Though the team’s been less than impressive going into the All-Star Break falling to tied for third-worst in the league at 20-20-9 with 49 points, they can be assured that they have a very special weapon in Athanasiou. His top-six audition has been fairly impressive, and Blashill, though he still has a really tight grip on the reigns of the youth, has to be impressed with what he’s seen from the electrifying standpoint. In his first 70 career games, he’s put up 20 goals and 30 points, which would be a fairly impressive start to a fourth-round pick’s career had it been a full campaign’s worth of games. Just a tidbit to think about, his 3.30 goals-for per 60 minutes ranks second on the team to Vanek minimum 360 minutes of ice time, a good sign for his ability to finish.
The focus for the team should be to put themselves in a position to be able to draft a high-impact player to get Athanasiou and other pieces (Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist) the puck so they can evolve even more as players. Henrik Zetterberg is going to be 37 this year with time running out on his career, and there are no clear-cut replacements on the roster for top six centers outside of Larkin, who is going through a very difficult sophomore campaign with no immediate signals that he would be ready. Nielsen will also be up in age turning 33 this year already, so having another candidate to supplant him through the remainder of his contract would be all the more important for the team’s growth up front.
All future outlooks aside, Athanasiou is a promising piece that seems to be finding it now that he’s been consistently given the opportunity. Still only 22, he does still have some growth ahead of him, and more young depth down the middle for the long haul would do him and his mates wonders.