By: Will Burchfield

Andreas Athanasiou remains unsigned as the 2017-18 season gets underway, but Red Wings GM Ken Holland insists it’s not related to the team’s salary-cap crunch.

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“Absolutely not,” Holland told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket.

Holland made this clear to Athanasiou and his agent Darren Ferris when they first met this summer.

“I told them in July, ‘Don’t worry about the salary cap. I’m in charge of the hockey team. We have to find a contract that’s fair for Andreas based upon the comparables.’ That was certainly one of my first points that I made to Darren Ferris,” Holland said.

Per multiple reports, the Red Wings have offered Athanasiou a two-year deal worth $1.9 million annually and a one-year deal worth $1.25 million. (The latter option would allow him to make more money next summer through arbitration.) Athanasiou, a restricted free agent, is asking for $2.5 million per season.

The Wings’ payroll is right up against the $75 million salary cap, due in large part to a number of bloated contracts for aging players, and Holland would have to shed some money to make room for Athanasiou. But he doesn’t feel handcuffed by the team’s cap crunch because a) he’s confident he can make the pieces fit, and b) he believes the offers on the table for Athanasiou are already fair.

“Where we are with regards to, ‘Oh, Holland’s got all his money tied up in bad contracts and he can’t do anything,’ that’s all total BS. I made that very clear to Darren from the get-go,” Holland said. “We’re going to negotiate a contract here that’s fair for the club and fair for Andreas based upon the comparables in the NHL — similar age, similar experience, similar accomplishments, similar ice time.

“When you go to an arbitration case they don’t say, ‘Are you big or small? Are you fast or slow?’ They look at stats. Everyone talks about analytics, analytics. Well, based upon analytics, to find a fair solution has certainly been my agenda going into it.”

Athanasiou is one of Detroit’s best offensive players. He’s got the speed to create opportunities for himself and the hands to finish in tight. The gifted 23-year-old is potentially a piece to build around. Still, his numbers aren’t eye-popping: 18 goals and 27 points in 64 games last season, 27 goals and 43 points in 101 career games.

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The Blue Jackets signed Josh Anderson, 23, to a three-year deal worth $1.85 million annually on Monday. Anderson tallied 17 goals and 29 points in 78 games last season.

The Maple Leafs signed Connor Brown, 23, to a three-year deal worth $2.1 million annually in August. Brown had 20 goals and 36 points in 82 games last season.

Said Holland, “When I negotiate contracts we don’t pick numbers out of the blue. They’re based upon what’s going on around the NHL.”

Defenders of Athanasiou would argue his stats have been repressed by a lack of opportunity. The fleet-footed forward has a knack for maximizing his ice time, and he finished toward the bottom of the team in this category last season. It’s fair to wonder if this is contributing to his decision to hold out and weigh offers from the KHL.

“They all think they don’t play enough. I think there’s 15 guys down there (in the locker room) that don’t think they play enough,” Holland said. “That’s pro sports. They all want to play more, but at the end of the day do we find ways to get solutions? Yes.”

In a meeting with Athanasiou and Ferris during training camp last month, Holland assured Athanasiou an expanded role in the 2017-18 season.

“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. Certainly, the role that the coach sees him in, in my opinion, is a very important role,” said Holland.

Holland has communicated with Ferris this week, but negotiations seem to be at a standstill. It’s likely a matter of which side blinks first.

“We’ve talked a lot, obviously there’s nothing really going on right now,” Holland said. “Do I think anything’s going to happen soon? No.”

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Athanasiou has reportedly received a number of appealing offers from KHL teams, where he stands to make more money than in the NHL. However, the KHL season is already well underway, and Athanasiou would be no closer to unrestricted free agency upon his return to the NHL.