Go Greece Lightning - Evaluating Andreas Athanasiou’s impact on the Red Wings

Between 1990-1991 and 2008-2009, the Red Wings had at least one 30-goal scorer every year, minus the 1997-1998 season. The last decade has been an entirely different story as not a single player recorded a 30-goal season - until this year when both Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou achieved the milestone in successive games. Athanasiou, in particular, has made quite a name for himself as a goal scorer. Since he entered the league in 2015-2016, Athanasiou ranks 5th (>1000 minutes) in even-strength goals scored per 60 minutes, trailing only Auston Matthews, Alex DeBrincat, Alex Ovechkin, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Not a bad list to be on. At the end of next season, Athanasiou will be coming up on his 26th birthday and will be a restricted free agent in need of a new contract. As the Wings plan for his next contract, Detroit should consider a couple of important questions:

  1. How good of a goal scorer is Athanasiou?
  2. How do the Wings balance Athanasiou’s goal-scoring ability with the rest of his game?

As previously mentioned, Athanasiou ranks 5th among all players in even-strength goals scored per 60 minutes of ice time since 2015-2016. When we think about classifying goal scorers, we think of players that score because they shoot a lot and players that score because they take high-quality shots. In the case of Athanasiou, his greatest asset is his shot volume.

Athanasiou is slightly above the league median for forwards in expected goals per unblocked shot but ranks among the top-25 in even-strength shots per 60 minutes. Taking this a step further, we can roughly approximate Athanasiou’s shooting talent by looking at his actual unblocked shooting percentage relative to his expected unblocked shooting percentage.

Athanasiou (red dot) is among the best shooters in the game when considering his shooting percentage above expected. Factor in his high shot volume and it’s pretty easy to understand why Athanasiou is among the top goal scorers in the game. Taking in to account his expected goals per 60, shots per 60, shooting percentage above expected, and a little bit of geometry, the shooters that are most similar to Athanasiou are listed below.

Not a bad list, right?

Beyond Athanasiou’s shooting talent, an important consideration for the Wings has been identifying where they should play Athanasiou. For most of his career, Athanasiou has played on the wing to minimize his defensive responsibilities and allow him to utilize his speed to create chances. Recently, the Wings have committed to playing Athanasiou at center to see if he can fill the massive void at center behind Dylan Larkin. Since the NHL does not record the position each player plays per game, I attempted to identify the games that Athanasiou played center by identifying games where Athanasiou took five or more faceoffs.

It’s important to note that this is just an exploratory analysis as I have not controlled for his teammates, opponents, or a number of other important factors that influence these numbers. At baseline, Athanasiou has generated quality shots at an incredible rate and has converted at an elite level. Focusing on his numbers as a center, Athanasiou has scored 1.55 goals per 60 minutes, a mark that would be second-best in the league, trailing only Auston Matthews. Additionally, his expected goals rate of 1.09 per 60 minutes would rank 4th. In a much larger sample as a winger, Athanasiou still boasts elite goal-scoring numbers, with an even-strength goals per 60 rate that would rank among the top-15 forwards in the league.

Setting aside his scoring numbers, it’s important to evaluate Athanasiou’s overall impact on the ice at both positions. Again, we aren’t controlling for other factors that influence these numbers so this can only be considered hypothesis-generating at best.

While the Wings actually have a better goal differential with Athanasiou slotted at center, we see that it’s likely due to luck as the Wings have been severely outplayed from a Corsi and Expected Goals perspective. With a larger sample at wing, we still see that the Wings have been outplayed with Athanasiou on the ice, although it’s to a much smaller extent. Overall, it appears as if Athanasiou is struggling with the defensive responsibilities of being a center and the Wings may want to consider officially ending the experiment.

At the end of the day, the Wings have an elite goal scorer that doesn’t impact the rest of the game at a high level. Athanasiou ranks 351st out of 484 forwards (>1000 EV minutes) in even-strength goals above replacement per 60 minutes since entering the league. Even with recognizing that goals above replacement are limited by the fact that the statistic is goal-based, Athanasiou still ranks near the bottom of the league when isolating his impact on Corsi plus-minus, Expected goals plus-minus, and Goals plus-minus.

There’s still value in having a pure goal-scorer like Athanasiou on the team, although his value is limited by the fact that the team does not perform as well with him on the ice. In contrast, Dylan Larkin has figured it out how to use his speed to be an effective goal-scorer and have a significant impact on the team’s performance. This season, Larkin ranks among the top-10 in regularized adjusted Corsi plus-minus per 60 and top-30 in regularized adjusted expected goals plus-minus per 60. If Athanasiou is to earn himself a big contract with money close to what Larkin received, he’ll need to take a big step forward in shoring up his all-around game. The Wings may be able to help him by officially ending the experiment with him as a center. For now, Wings’ fans can appreciate having one of the most electrifying goal scorers on their team, even though it comes with worse overall outcomes for the team.

Data via Evolving-Hockey.com unless otherwise stated