I have a weird fan relationship with Andreas Athanasiou and I kind of hate it.
Don’t get me wrong, the guy is electric. When he’s not on the ice, I find myself waiting for his next shift. He’s starting to live up to the promise of the hints he was allowed to show in limited minutes last season. Five goals in his last five games since his duties as fourth line center evolved to add 2nd line winger for Dylan Larkin to that job. You know correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it’s hard to look at the guy’s game log, see that seven of his nine goals have come in games in which he’s played at least 19 minutes and not be happy that he’s finally being utilized the way he should be; This stretch comes with all the caveats of “sample size”, but when it also fits neatly into more than a year of people smarter than I am saying all indications are that this is what we’d see from Athanasiou if he were given more opportunity, then feel free to set this aside as a cautionary tale about confirmation bias.
Craig Custance at The Athletic (paywall) recently wrote about how the real test will be what happens when Athanasiou’s scoring dries up, indicating that coaches’ gameplanning for threats as obvious as the Larkin-to-AA connection always wins, hinting that the easiest solution to prevent defender-burn is to give a bit more space through the neutral zone and force them to beat you with shots from a greater distance, even if 25 feet is still a little too close for comfort. It’s a good point, and we’ve seen enough of Athanasiou to know that his propensity to try and force plays while a defender is still in front of him can kill rushes/create turnovers in areas of the ice which can create dangerous counterattacks against defenses that are either moving the wrong way or are trying to change behind a play they expect to get deep.
And I’m torn every time I see him try it because on a team I consistently think lacks punch specifically because not enough guys try to keep forcing defenders to make good plays keeping the puck out of high-danger areas, I’m also keenly aware of the associated risks of these chances, as well as the risks associated with Athanasiou’s other propensity: flying the zone early.
The fancystats for AA so far this season aren’t exactly kind. Detroit gives up more shot attempts and high-danger scoring chances than they create with him on the ice. According to Naturalstattrick, his overall high-danger scoring chance count is currently -16, but you have to take into account that AA got a late start on the season and spent a large chunk of games kind of taking up space on the fourth line in usage that can kind of be described as those wasted years where the Capitals tried to make Alex Ovechkin play like a Selke hopeful. During the most-recent five game stretch that has everybody more-positive, he’s a 21-20 in terms of high-danger chances created-versus-allowed when on the ice at 5v5, and continues to retain the great penalty differential that a player with his speed should be able to sustain for a very long time.
Geez this is the 3rd game in a row where Athanasiou has been the best player on the ice. Amazing what he can do when he's locked in and given ice time with great players— Prashanth Iyer (@iyer_prashanth) January 4, 2018
In short, AA is great and fun and there’s also a good argument that he isn’t really “elite” or that he’s maybe a bit one-dimensional, or perhaps he’s not truly the one driving what he’s doing and instead Dylan Larkin should be getting way more hype. But, in a season where my hopes are tied to the kids and improving within the process more than they’re tied to caring whether the team is overall driving possession and scoring chances the right way, I see all the hype and excitement around AA and I just kind of feel dread.
Dread because the shadow of Athanasiou’s holdout to start this season still looms. Dread because the same GM and coach who drove that holdout are still in the same positions they were in prior to that decision. Dread because it’s more likely the Red Wings trade Athanasiou before this season is over than it’s likely they sign him to a fair multi-year extension.
I remain a bigger fan of the Red Wings than any individual. The same holds true here. If he doesn’t spend his entire career in Detroit, it’ll be really easy to understand and appreciate how it all happened and to blame members of the organization for whom I am also not an individual fan. I know a lot of people wish a player well in parting or even keep rooting for them in their new digs. I’ve been able to flirt with that occasionally (I still miss you, Jiri Hudler), but even if I know the player is justified in leaving, it’s a struggle for me to not just be bitter about what could have been. Athanasiou is perhaps the scariest possible example here because the Red Wings haven’t driven off any 23 year old who I am convinced is this much of an impact player during my time as a fan of the team.
I mean, you’ve got the general annoyance of seeing Calle Jarnkrok doing pretty well in Nashville or Mattias Janmark scoring in Dallas. You’ve even got the wistful regret about Riley Sheahan putting up points for the Penguins, but Athanasiou really seems to carry a lot of potential to be “the one that got away” and for that to be embarrassing for a long time for Wings fans. Combined with the general mismanagement that would make none of this surprising to Wings fans, there’s a bad taste in my mouth just thinking about it, and it’s kind of turning me into the bitter Indians fan played by Randy Quaid in Major League 2 when I watch Athanasiou.
I suppose the lesson in here for me is to just enjoy what it is while it lasts, but I’d sure feel a lot better if somehow the Wings would prioritize keeping AA in the fold as much as they seem to be keying in on Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha. I know the team will need more pieces to build around and a core of exciting young forwards where two of them are better-suited to play the wing doesn’t really fit a rebuild plan, making it likely one of them will eventually have to go (and that AA is an easier choice, based on watching fans of other teams kind of drool over the thought that it’ll be possible to buy lower on him), but I want to keep enjoying his breakaways for the Red Wings well past April 2018 and right now I’m just kind of worried we won’t even get that far.