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It’s OK to criticize Andreas Athanasiou, Danny DeKeyser, and Jeff Blashill, even at the same time

Detroit Red Wings v Florida Panthers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Red Wings started their seven-game road trip on Thursday night in Ottawa needing (in their own minds) desperately to start collecting points to help them catch up on the #3 spot in the Atlantic Division. While the result wasn’t perfect, Detroit got two points and a ROW victory on Anthony Mantha’s overtime game-winner. A curious thing happened on the way to the win, though, as the Wings skated nearly half the game needing to preferably break the 2-2 tie in regulation, but doing so without one of their most efficient and electrifying forwards.

While Anthony Mantha won the game in OT for the Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou, who has the same 5-on-5 points output pace as Mantha, remained stapled to the bench for a mistake early in the 2nd period which gave the Senators a 2-1 lead.

Lest there be any confusion as to whether Athanasiou’s benching, which included just one more 2nd period shift about 14 minutes after that goal, was related to injury or malady, that’s a question which actually did get asked:

Unfortunately missing from the social media feeds of the folks either paid directly by the Red Wings or who make a living indirectly because of them was a consideration about the fate of Athanasiou’s partner in crime for that goal and leading contributor to the first Ottawa goal, Danny DeKeyser. Obviously the fans didn’t miss that piece though. All it takes is a click on that Wakiji Tweet’s timestamp to see the replies blasting Blashill for his coaching decision.

Something that feels like it’s getting lost in all of this is that Andreas Athanasiou really did screw up on that play and deserves criticism. Let’s take a look from both the game camera and behind-the-net angles:

In the first clip, you see Phaneuf take the shot from the point as traffic forms around the net-front. Coreau stops it and the rebound comes straight to DeKeyser. You also see DeKeyser is immediately cut off by Cody Ceci. The Ottawa defenseman plays the timing and angle on this perfectly. DeKeyser is unable to turn up ice because Ceci’s angle cuts between DK’s body and the puck, creating what would be a turnover. DeKeyser spinning the other way to shrug off Ceci would have turned him directly into Derick Brassard right in front of the net.

DeKeyser’s best bet is to get rid of the puck immediately. He’s got three options here and he takes the medium-risk choice.

  • The super-safe play is to dump it behind his own net and then get ready to battle more forechecking to get it out (also important to note that at this point, DeKeyser’s shift is 1:45 old).
  • The play made only by geniuses and madmen on this sequence would be to put the puck directly into the slot on Dylan Larkin’s stick. We can see here it would have worked, but generally that’s the kind of pass that gets your teammates blown up by point men looking for opportunities to kill forwards trying to come out of their zone while simultaneously looking behind them for the puck.
  • The option DeKeyser takes is to try to dump it off the boards around the point man. It’s not guaranteed he’ll get it to a teammate, but a turnover here at least forces Ottawa to do a few things before the scoring chance (which obviously is what they do here... it’s safer than a suicide pass or a net-front turnover, but every play involves risk). Ceci prevents DK from getting everything he wants on the pass and Mark Stone picks it off.

Athanasiou’s Involvement

Staying on the first clip for a moment, if you watch Athanasiou, you’ll see he disappears off the top of the screen, preparing himself for the opportunity to create a scoring chance on transition.

The behind-the-net angle shows what and how exactly Athanasiou gambles on this play. As the puck comes to DK, AA is already behind Stone and takes his first two strides to create even more separation. You can also see that Dion Phaneuf is still above the play and a perfect pass by DeKeyser springs AA for a 1-on-1 rush against Phaneuf or, more likely a 2-on-1 with Larkin joining him a bit late.

The problem is that both Athanasiou and Larkin are both fast enough to create this play without having to cheat for it and all that cheating does is prevent AA from being back to cover Mark Stone as he heads to the dot to finish out the scoring chance that Brassard feeds him thanks to another DeKeyser mistake of stopping at the near post and only trying to block the passing lane instead of trying to block that pass while also putting pressure on Brassard to make his decision quicker.

DeKeyser made an understandable attempt to get the puck away from a Senators player who made a really good positioning play and then a baffling decision to not pressure a guy with the puck when he should have, but the crux of this play turning from a lost opportunity at a breakout into a goal against was on Athanasiou’s decision to take his first two steps in the wrong direction and then again in his decision to not take the crucial next two steps of getting back to prevent his man from scoring.

Blame and Punishment

The beautiful symmetry of this play being Danny DeKeyser taking more than his fair share of blame for a series of screwups because it’s shared with a high-potential youngster is that DeKeyser was previously my personal poster boy for that kind of treatment. There is definitely something more real about giving a guy blame after he gets his $5M contract, I guess.

At any rate, I see a lot of discussion about how Athanasiou shouldn’t have been benched or DeKeyser should have been punished, and I want to treat those as two separate considerations:

Danny DeKeyser Should have been Punished

I know most readers are savvy enough to know that it’s not entirely appropriate to treat a 26-year old four-year veteran the same developmentally as a guy playing his 59th NHL game at age 22, let alone to treat a defenseman and a forward the same when it comes to sending in-game messages, but I’ll say anyway that purposefully playing 35 minutes in an intradivision game with only five defensemen because you’re mad at a dude for a mistake is kind of an extreme situation, whereas going to 11 forwards is... well it’s not.

What it also forgets is that the rest of the game wasn’t exactly business-as-usual for DeKeyser. After that goal, DeKeyser played just 2:41 for the rest of the second, ending up with lower ice time in that period than any other defenseman not named Jensen. Overall, DeKeyser fell behind both Brendan Smith and Xavier Ouellet for time on ice, playing about three and a half minutes fewer than his season average.

While eight minutes of power play time in the last two periods had an effect as well, DeKeyser went from the 2nd-most used defenseman in the first period (behind Ouellet), to the third pair the rest of the way.

Athanasiou Shouldn’t Have Been Benched

Sadly, I don’t have a “well actually” for this one. I wasn’t terribly impressed with AA in the time before his mistake on the 2nd Ottawa goal, and I can understand a need to send a message, but I think it would have been better if that message had been delivered before the third period and he had been given a chance to break the tie with Ottawa prior to overtime, even if breaking that tie meant the Wings giving up that tiebreaking goal. I still don’t root for losses, but in this season I’m rooting for development and I think that happens more on the ice than off it.

A small caveat though: I’m basing my opinion that benching AA was a mistake on the entirety of what I know. Unfortunately, this does not include knowledge about any on-bench or in-room conversations between Blashill and Athanasiou. While I don’t think he should have been benched, I also have no clue nor have I been given any insight about whether he might have said or done something that would have earned him such a punishment. It’s entirely possible that something that happened during or after the 1:04 shift AA got near the end of the 2nd period (about 13 minutes after the goal) made clear to Jeff Blashill that it would be better for the team and for Athanasiou’s growth if he were to sit out the rest of the game. I just have my doubts.