By: Will Burchfield
One of the main reasons Andreas Athanasiou ended his holdout this fall and accepted a contract well below his asking price was because Ken Holland and Jeff Blashill made him some assurances about playing time.
In a meeting in September, about a month before the two sides came to an agreement, Holland told Athanasiou and his agent, Darren Ferris, not to worry about the 23-year-old getting enough opportunity.
“I made a point of saying that we see him as a top-nine forward in ice time, he’s going to be on one of our power play units, he’s going to be on one of our penalty-killing units,” Holland said. “Certainly, the role that the coach sees him in, in my opinion, is a very important role.”
According to MLive.com, Holland told Athanasiou that Blashill planned on playing him 15-16 minutes per game.
For Athanasiou, who spent a lot of time on the bench last season, that was enough to come down from his demand of $2.5 million annually and settle for one year at $1.38 million.
“Yeah, anytime you can get a chance to play more opportunity, you want it. … It’s going to be advantageous to you,” Athanasiou said on Friday. “You just try to do your best and play so that he (Blashill) can kind of throw you out there as much as possible.”
Whether Holland’s pledge to Athanasiou was a soft commitment or a shaken-on promise isn’t clear. In all likelihood, it was something closer to the former. But it begs an important question either way: Have the Red Wings honored their word?
The answer is, barely. And not until recently.
In 29 games, Athanasiou has averaged 15:17 of ice time, ninth among forwards. He’s averaged 2:08 of power play time (eighth among forwards) and 0:24 of penalty kill time (sixth among forwards). The first two numbers are up from last season, the third is down.
Asked if he feels he’s been given the opportunity he was promised, Athanasiou paused and then offered a diplomatic answer. It didn’t exactly add up to “Yes.”
“I just kind of go out there no matter what the minutes are, but I don’t really look into it too much. Just come into every game and be prepared for whatever ice time I get. Whether it’s going to be a lot, just gotta be prepared that whenever you touch the ice you gotta be ready,” he said.
It was a careful response underscoring a professional mindset. As to whether it was the truth, the whole truth, only Athanasiou can say. But if he genuinely believed Holland, Blashill and the Wings have been holding up their end of the bargain, wouldn’t he have answered in the affirmative?
Fact is, Athanasiou’s ice time only exceeds the 15-minutes-per-game threshold because it has swelled in the three games since Anthony Mantha’s injury. Athanasiou, who was playing on the fourth line at the time, took Mantha’s spot on the first line and has since played 20:46 per game.
(Continuing his knack for making the most of his opportunities, he has three goals in three games.)
In the 26 games prior to Mantha’s injury, Athanasiou was averaging 14:40 of ice time. Forgive him if he’s not yet sold on the opportunity at hand.
Look, ice time is earned, not given. The Red Wings owe Athanasiou nothing if he’s not helping them win. Truth be told, his possession metrics leave much to be desired and he still needs to find a more consistent compete level. There are too many nights, if fewer than last year, that he doesn’t leave an imprint on the game.
But make no mistake about it. Athanasiou has seized the opportunity at hand.
“I think there was some opportunity presented to him with Mantha’s injury, and he’s earned that ice,” Blashill said after Detroit’s 2-1 overtime win over Ottawa on Wednesday in which Athanasiou scored both goals.
Blashill doubled-shifted Athanasiou throughout the game as the team only dressed 11 forwards. The speedster played wing on the second line with Dylan Larkin and Tomas Tatar, and center on the fourth line with Mantha and Martin Frk. He was buzzing the entire night.
“I could double other guys up more, but I’ve doubled up Double-A lots because I think he’s played more consistently hard,” said Blashill. “He’s played the type of hockey he has to play to be successful.”
Athanasiou has also benefited from playing on Larkin’s wing. He’s never more dangerous than when he receives the puck in full stride, and Larkin seems to know exactly when to pass it to him.
“As a winger I can kind of blow the zone a little bit when I see he has the puck,” said Athanasiou. “He has that feel. I think he knows when I’m gonna go and where to deliver the puck, and he’s doing a real good job of it.”
But more than anything else, Blashill said, Athanasiou’s ice time has increased because he’s learning a lesson that Larkin learned last year.
“He’s no different than any other player in the league. If you want to be a high-impact player in the league, you have to work extraordinarily hard every shift and compete extraordinarily hard every shift. It’s way different than 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” Blashill said.
He added, “The more games you build up where you’re playing that same way, playing great hockey and playing engaged, the more you’re taking steps toward being a great hockey player in this league.”
Through Athanasiou’s first 29 games, Blashill has deployed him just enough to fulfill Holland’s promise. That’s probably not a coincidence. If Athanasiou feels shorted, it’s nothing he can’t fix. The ice time is there for him to take.
And he knows it.
“You can see there’s definitely games where I’m a big, big factor,” Athanasiou said, “so I just try to do the best I can to help the team and we’ll see that role increasing hopefully.”