Speed Kills: Breaking Down Andreas Athanasiou's Blazing Start

*Note: This piece was written prior to the 03/19/2016 game vs. Florida

When the 2015-2016 season started, there weren't incredibly high expectations for Andreas Athanasiou. He was coming off of a solid, but not spectacular 16-goal, 32-point season in the AHL and wasn't expected to see playing time with the Detroit Red Wings this year. Fast forward to today and Athanasiou has played his way ahead of Teemu Pulkkinen and Tomas Jurco on the depth chart and has become a fixture in the Red Wings' lineup. Athanasiou's speed and offensive creativity has been a breath of fresh air for the Red Wings' stagnant offense. Let's take a look at how his presence has impacted this team.

Athanasiou's Offense

Through 26 games, Athanasiou has been nothing short of a revelation for Detroit's offense. Take a look at how his numbers compare to another incredibly fast rookie. If any of these stats are unfamiliar, please click here to learn more

First 26 Career Games Andreas Athanasiou Dylan Larkin
5v5 TOI 215.19 349.31
5v5 CF% 52.22 52.88
5v5 CF60 59.11 56.68
5v5 xGF60 3.10 2.90
5v5 G60 1.39 1.55
5v5 P60 2.51 2.75
5v5 ixG60 1.00 1.00

Data from Corsica.hockey

As you can see, there's not a whole lot that separates Athanasiou from Dylan Larkin's blazing hot start. In fact, over the last 20 games, Athanasiou is tied for third on the team in goals (5) and sixth in points (9), despite playing just 9.3 minutes per game.

What makes Athanasiou so dangerous is his speed. His speed allows him to get to the dangerous areas of the ice and generate chances. Using War-On-Ice's definition of a high-danger scoring chance and a scoring chance, see how Athanasiou stacks up against the rest of the Red Wings forwards.

Name iHSC/60 iSC/60
Andreas Athanasiou 6.28 10.65
Pavel Datsyuk 4.27 8.89
Tomas Tatar 3.98 9.38
Darren Helm 3.98 9.08
Teemu Pulkkinen 3.91 7.64
Dylan Larkin 3.52 9.32
Justin Abdelkader 3.46 6.08
Tomas Jurco 3.29 7.41
Gustav Nyquist 3.06 6.99
Luke Glendening 3.04 5.37
Henrik Zetterberg 2.99 7.38
Riley Sheahan 2.90 6.61
Brad Richards 1.99 7.05
Drew Miller 1.89 3.99

Data from War-On-Ice

Athanasiou is head and shoulders above the rest of the Red Wings forwards when it comes to generating shots from dangerous locations. His numbers are so good that he finds himself in the top-15 in the NHL in individual 5v5 scoring chances per 60 minutes (minimum 200 minutes played)

Name iSC/60
Vladimir Tarasenko 12.04
Nazem Kadri 11.97
Alex Ovechkin 11.69
Marian Gaborik 11.57
Jeff Skinner 11.24
Patric Hornqvist 11.19
Jason Spezza 11.10
Brandon Saad 10.90
Taylor Hall 10.89
Tyler Toffoli 10.73
Tyler Seguin 10.71
Andreas Athanasiou 10.65
Max Pacioretty 10.54
Brendan Gallagher 10.42
Nathan MacKinnon 10.36

Data from War-On-Ice

However, lots of players are fast. What makes Athanasiou's speed so dangerous?

Athanasiou's Speed

Take a look at this play from the Red Wings' most recent game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

I want to highlight a few key plays that Athanasiou made with the puck that allowed this goal to happen. First, is the concept of gap control. As a defenseman, when a forward is rushing at you, it is very important to maintain gap control. What this means is that there needs to be an appropriate distance between the on-rushing forward and the backpedaling defenseman. The general rule of thumb taught to defensemen is to be three stick-lengths away at the offensive blue line, two stick-lengths away at center ice, and within one-stick length away at the defensive blue line.

Defensemen must have excellent backwards acceleration, lateral skating, and defensive awareness to guard these plays appropriately. However, a significant number of defensemen struggle with at least one of these three things. Athanasiou's speed causes a major problem for defensemen, particularly when he puts them in situations where they need to accelerate backwards or move laterally against the rush. Look at the frame-by-frame breakdown of the above play.

In this first frame, we see that the Columbus defender is currently maintaining excellent gap control. He is approximately three stick lengths away from Athanasiou as the puck hits the first blue line.

As the puck hits center ice, you could argue that the Columbus defender is maybe just a tad outside of two stick lengths away but by no means is this horrible gap control. What you can see though is that from the first frame to the second frame, Athanasiou has shifted his skating from angling towards the middle to angling towards the boards which has caused the Columbus defender to swivel his hips just a bit. While the defender does want to keep Athanasiou towards the outside, this hip swivel actually proves costly in maintaining his gap control.

As Athanasiou hits the blue line, you can see that the Columbus defender is outside of the one stick length away, but not by much. However, this slight opening allows Athanasiou the opportunity to take the puck to the middle of the ice. Due to the hip swivel, the defenseman has lost the ability to prevent Athanasiou from attacking the middle of the ice.

Thanks to Glendening driving the net hard, the second Columbus defenseman is unable to step up on Athanasiou and take away the middle of the ice.

To complete his masterpiece, Athanasiou drives towards the Columbus backchecker, forcing him to retreat. This opens up the ice behind Athanasiou for Riley Sheahan. Athanasiou smartly drops the puck back to Sheahan and the Red Wings score a goal. In the span of just over a second, Athanasiou managed to occupy the attention of three different Columbus players, and forced each of them to yield ground and defend him. His offensive IQ in combination with his speed makes him an absolutely lethal player in the offensive zone.

The other major plus that Athanasiou brings is his ability to draw penalties. I don't need to type another word, I will just show you one image.

Athanasiou's Defense

Despite Athanasiou's offensive brilliance, he has yet to be rewarded with the requisite ice time. To date, Athanasiou has played more than 10 minutes in a game just eight times in 26 games and has played more than 12 minutes only twice. Looking at his usage, we can see that it's largely due to the fact that Blashill does not trust Athanasiou defensively.

From hockeyviz.com

From this image we can see that Athanasiou's ice time peaks when the Red Wings are down by a goal but in situations where the game is tied or the Wings have a lead, his ice time nosedives. Looking at his advanced numbers, we can see that Blashill may have a bit of a reason for this. Among all Detroit players who have played at least 200 minutes on ice, Athanasiou ranks last in 5v5 scoring chances against per 60 and 5v5 high danger scoring chances against per 60. Relative to the rest of the team, he's been by far Detroit's worst player in 5v5 shots on goal against per 60 minutes.

When you review the tape, you can see that Athanasiou and his linemates often get caught deep in the offensive zone in situations where one of them was expected to be higher up to prevent an odd-man rush.

These are the types of situations Athanasiou has found himself in this season, leading to those high-danger chances against. While the blame should not solely fall on Athanasiou for this particular play, you can see some of the growing pains of having a rookie learn NHL defense on the fly. However, you shouldn't view this play or others as Athanasiou going rogue outside of the Red Wings' structured defensive system. As a team, the Wings have opened up their system significantly over the last 20 games to try and generate more offense.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the level of acceptable risk that Blashill is willing to tolerate. Right now, I think he's in a bit of a panic and is leaning heavily on his veterans. He wants to open up his system to generate more offensive chances, but at the same time he's nervous about giving up too many chances against. He's trying to strike the appropriate balance and is leaning on his veterans to do that. As great as Datsyuk and Zetterberg are, they've struggled for long stretches this season. Take a look at their 5v5 numbers over the past 20 games in comparison to Athanasiou.

Andreas Athanasiou Pavel Datsyuk Henrik Zetterberg
TOI 161.92 296.8 310.4
Goals 4 3 3
Assists 4 3 2
Points 8 6 5
iHSC/60 5.56 6.06 2.71
iSC/60 10.38 11.12 8.89
iCF/60 13.33 16.58 14.88

As much as Athanasiou has struggled defensively early on, remember that he's 21 years old and has 26 games of NHL experience. He's going to get better. Datsyuk wasn't born a Selke Trophy winner; he learned his craft over many years. It's time to unleash Greece Lightning to help get this team into the playoffs.

Which rookie are you most excited for?

Andreas Athanasiou213
Dylan Larkin468
Anthony Mantha147
The future's great, huh?872