By: Will Burchfield
For all of Andreas Athanasiou’s talent, there may not be a player who’s more frequently in Jeff Blashill’s dog house.
The 22-year-old forward has been scratched three games this season and benched in at least three others. He ranks 12th among the team’s 16 forwards in ice time with 12:41 per game.
It feels counterintuitive for a player who maximizes his minutes, especially on a team desperate for more offense. But general manager Ken Holland feels Athanasiou needs to refine the defensive aspects of his game to warrant a bigger role.
“First off, this is a hard league to be 22 and we’re trying to be a playoff team, were trying to win games, last year and this year,” Holland told TSN Montreal 690 on Monday. “Most of these games in the NHL are decided by one goal on most nights, so if a young player lets a check go and the guy gets a scoring chance, it’s an opportunity, I guess, as a coach, to send a message to learn how to help your team win.”
In short, Athanasiou’s potential at one end of the ice doesn’t excuse his inconsistency at the other.
“Some nights you’re not going to get a scoring chance. Some nights as a young offensive player, your job is to make sure that the player you’re lined up against doesn’t get a scoring chance because they’re doing a good job on you,” Holland said. “It can’t always just be about the offensive side of the puck, it’s also got to be about the defensive side of the puck.”
That’s all fair. The NHL is too tight, too good, nowadays, for teams to rely on one-way players. But it’s also too good for teams to keep their most dynamic players, experienced or not, on an impossibly tight leash — and this is where Wings fans might take issue with Holland’s philosophy on ice time.
“Jeff Blashill and I talk about this quite often — Henrik Zetterberg is an example. He’s built up stock. It’s like you’re in a company,” Holland explained. “When you build up stock and you have an off night, all the stock you’ve built up allows you to have those nights when, as a veteran player, you maybe have an off night.
“When you’re a young player you can’t have off nights because you don’t have that stock built up, you haven’t done enough to help the team win through time.”
Younger players are inevitably going to have less room for error. But it seems extreme – and extremely stubborn – to give them basically none.
One bad game? That’s it, kid. Take a seat.
It’s especially crippling to apply this standard to Athanasiou, who fills the team’s most glaring need more efficiently than any player on the roster. Last year, when he played in 37 games for Detroit, Athanasiou finished first in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time¹. This year, he ranks third overall in the same category, first on the Wings².
Holland acknowledged this trend himself.
“I think he only played about eight or nine minutes a game last year and he had about ten goals in half the season,” Holland said. “So you had a guy on the roster that over a full season could probably score 20 goals in limited ice (time). He has the ability, every now and then, that when he gets some time and space he can bring you out of your seat.”
That’s been evident numerous times over Athanasiou’s short career, most recently on Saturday night versus the Penguins. Need we remind you?
The good news for Athanasiou is that the Wings seem to be loosening the reins. (Yes, we’ve said this before.) Since he was scratched on Jan. 4 versus the Ducks, Athanasiou has played in six straight games and averaged 15:02 of ice time, a considerable increase from his season average of 12:41. Unsurprisingly, he’s recorded four goals and seven points in that span.
Blashill might point to Athanasiou’s improved “compete level” in explaining his recent success. Holland might commend the forward for playing a better all-around game. The irony is that Athanasiou doesn’t think anything’s changed.
“I don’t think I’ve played different. I stuck to my game plan,” he said, following his first-star performance in Saturday night’s win. “Not trying to force anything. When the play’s there to make, make it. If not, just be in the right position.”
There will be nights Athanasiou wanders out of position. There will be nights he loses track of his man and puts the Wings in a bind. Along with Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, Holland said, Athanasiou is still learning “what (he’s) got to do on the offensive side of the puck and the defensive side of the puck night after night after night to help our team win.”
But his occasional defensive lapses seem like a small price to pay for his massive offensive potential. Need we remind you?
In reflecting on Athanasiou’s rookie season, when he scored nine goals and averaged 9:01 of ice time over 37 games, Holland said, “He got an opportunity and did a nice job in limited ice and really solidified a place on the team.”
But if he had truly solidified a place on the team, wouldn’t Athanasiou be afforded a little more latitude in his sophomore season? Wouldn’t he be permitted more than a mistake or two before being glued to the bench? Wouldn’t he rank higher than 12th among forwards in ice time?
Perhaps the Wings’ exacting standards will benefit Athanasiou down the road. Perhaps they’ll shape him into a more complete player. As Holland explained, it’s far more challenging to handle adversity in the NHL than the AHL.
“At the NHL level there’s more pressure on the team (and) the coach to win,” he said, “and the leash gets a little bit shorter.”
In regard to Athanasiou, that’s exactly why the leash should be longer.
¹ among players with at least 300 minutes.
² among players with at least 100 minutes.