By: Will Burchfield
Andreas Athanasiou chuckled bashfully, knowing exactly where the question was headed. He’s answered it before; surely he’ll answer it again.
Jeff Blashill confined Athanasiou to the bench for most of the third period in Detroit’s 2-1 win over the Ducks on Tuesday night, the second time Athanasiou has received that treatment in the past week. It’s been a regular occurrence for the 23-year-old in the past two seasons.
“He seems to do this…,” a reporter began, referring to Blashill, and Athanasiou smiled in acknowledgement and ran a weary hand through his hair. What else is there to say?
“There’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to be ready with whatever you get,” said Athanasiou.
Every player on the Red Wings sees swings in ice time — yes, even Henrik Zetterberg — but none to the wild degree of Athanasiou. Among the team’s top-nine forwards, a role Athanasiou was assured of during his holdout by general manager Ken Holland, only two players this season have been held to under 13 minutes in a game more than twice. One is Darren Helm, who’s received that fate four times.
Athanasiou, the other, has experienced it eight times (excluding his belated season debut.)
It’s enough to wonder if the speedy forward understands what Blashill wants from him on a game-by-game basis.
“Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear,” Athanasiou said on Wednesday. “I just have to do what I can. I know my game, so it’s kind of just doing that and trying to produce, I guess.”
Blashill, asked if he believes his message is getting through to Athanasiou, said, “I think so, and I think he’s been real receptive here in the last month. Understand that whenever I’ve tried to talk to him, whether it’s criticism or it’s positive, it’s trying to get him to be the best player that he can be and help our team win.”
Athanasiou’s third-period benching on Tuesday, Blashill said, was mostly a product of matchups. The big, physical Ducks were rolling three lines, and Blashill wanted to counter with certain players. Athanasiou, who had been dropped to the fourth line earlier in the game, didn’t fit the bill. On Wednesday he said he understood.
But in general, Blashill shaves Athanasiou’s ice time because the coach flatly isn’t pleased with his play. It can be related to drifting around the perimeter or losing one-on-one battles or making careless plays with the puck. But it almost always boils down to effort. It’s in these cases that Athanasiou seems less sure of how he wound up on the bench.
To describe when Athanasiou’s at his best, Blashill invoked a saying he learned from his former boss at Miami (OH) University, Enrico Blasi.
“His nose is over the puck, meaning he’s really engaged,” Blashill snarled, “and on top of that puck and winning those puck battles. When he’s not on, he reaches a little bit.”
Athanasiou, who’s careful with the media when discussing a touchy subject such as this one, was asked what he needs to do to consistently get 15-plus minutes per game.
“Just play good hockey. We all know the structure in this room, so I think just sticking to it. And whenever I get my chances I have to make the most of them,” he said.
Maximizing opportunity has become something of Athanasiou’s trademark over his first three years with the Wings. He ranked second on the team in goals last season despite finishing tenth among forwards in ice time. But he’s fallen into a slump of late, with just one point in his past nine games. He’s averaged 14:47 per game over that span. He had 11 points in the 11 games before that, over which time he averaged 19:35 per game.
Some might call him streaky, but that label is also partly out of his hands.
“I think that comes with how much you’re out there. I think you get out there a lot, you’re obviously going to generate some more numbers, as opposed to getting out there a little bit less (and) obviously it’s tougher,” Athanasiou said, smiling softly because it can sound so simple.
“It’s the way it is,” he added. “You have to make due with what you got.”
On top of the assurances he received from Holland entering this season, Athanasiou made a pact with Blashill. It was formed during a meeting between the two when Athanasiou was coming back from his holdout.
“We talked about making sure when he’s going, to make sure he gets the ice time,” Blashill said.
Blashill appears to have held up his end of the bargain. Athanasiou has played over 20 minutes on eight occasions this season. Only three forwards on the team — Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg and Dylan Larkin — have eclipsed that mark with more frequency. For Athanasiou, that’s the reality of living at either extreme of the ice-time spectrum. It’s shine or pine.
Among Red Wings fans, few topics stir unrest like Athanasiou’s playing time. Obvious talent and huge potential will have that effect, particularly on a team that struggles to score. Blashill gets it.
“There’s other guys that some nights their minutes are diminished a little bit and we don’t talk tons about it,” he said, “… but obviously because of the profile of Double-A we talk lots about it.”
The erratic nature of things adds to the frustration, as does this: Athanasiou’s pending free agency. The Red Wings might consider him a key piece of their future, but is the feeling mutual? Athanasiou’s numbers the past two seasons have no doubt been suppressed by inconsistent playing time. He might decide this summer — or maybe he already has — that he’d be better off in a new environment under a different coach.
The Red Wings’ fledgling rebuild is desperate for players of Athanasiou’s ilk. His talent is that of a 30-plus goal scorer. But the seemingly strained relationship between the two sides doesn’t bode well for a long-term partnership. Even in the short term, Athanasiou’s status as a restricted free agent matters little if he already has designs of leaving. Do the Wings want to retain a player who might not want to return?
A change in the GM office, where Holland’s contract expires after this season, and/or behind the bench, where Blashill is under contract through next season, may be the only way to salvage the situation.
For now, Athanasiou will “get back on the horse,” as Blashill said Wednesday, and put Tuesday behind him. The coach believes he’s played well over the past month, even if points have been hard to come by and ice time has been as volatile as ever. Athanasiou was bumped back up to the second line with Dylan Larkin and Tomas Tatar Wednesday at practice, and Blashill plans to call his number often Thursday night.
“He’ll get another chance against Tampa to have a big impact,” said Blashill.
Blashill is looking for consistency out of Athansasiou. Athanasiou may be looking for the same thing out of Blashill — not that he’d ever say.
“With whatever I get (Thursday) I’m going to try to make the most of it,” Athanasiou said. “However many minutes it is.”