Detroit – One has to wonder what is driving Andreas Athanasiou to Europe, to pursue his hockey dreams.
Thinking the contact dispute with the Red Wings is about a $500,000 gap between the player’s desire and management’s position seemed naïve a while ago.
Believing the salary cap prevented the additional financial consideration ignored how readily salary cap issues are resolved in the NHL.
It is surely brutal and drastic. With a phone call or email, a man’s life is dramatically altered.
But that is professional hockey.
So, when we learned the Red Wings told Athanasiou $1.9 million per year, for two years, and no more, we knew they had said, in effect, “Young man, this is what you are worth.”
Athanasiou’s disappointment is both understandable and common. It happens to a lot of restricted free agents at precisely this point in their careers.
The distance between their promise and their performance, measured in dollars by “hockey men” who manage NHL franchises, is never greater, even for a guy like Athanasiou who is playing well.
The player wants more. Management wants to wait.
Meanwhile, management has almost all the cards. The player has almost no leverage.
Arbitration rights normally come with the next contract, the one Athanasiou has yet to sign. Unrestricted free agency is farther around the bend.
Continuing the fight with so little leverage suggests Athanasiou is serious about diverting his career, playing in Europe and waiting for management to make a move.
An odd thought.
Just reading the paragraph describing it feels peculiar. It makes no sense.
Except as a bargaining ploy.
It is a tactic that Darren Ferris has used before.
Ferris is Athanasiou’s agent. After leaving, in short order, the Newport Sports Management group of longtime agent Don Meehan and then Bobby Orr’s Orr Hockey Group, Ferris launched his own Definitive Hockey Group.
He likes the Swiss gambit.
“We are heading there next week in the absence of a contract,” Ferris said of Switzerland in an email during the third week of September.
He was talking about Josh Anderson, the restricted free agent of the Blue Jackets, then.
Anderson, 23, who scored 17 goals and assisted on 12, signed Oct. 3 for three years at $1.85 million each.
Athanasiou figures to be a better player than Anderson, but time will tell.
And that, loud and clear, is the Red Wings message to him: Time will tell.
Athanasiou likely thinks of himself as better than that.
But going to Europe is an over-the-top ploy. Anderson did not do it. Neither player should.
Limited playing time
Perhaps Athanasiou’s limited playing time (13:28 on average as opposed to 16:09 for Dylan Larkin and 15:54 for ANthony Mantha) concerns him so much that he doubts his future with the franchise. Maybe he believes the additional $500,000 per year the Wings are unwilling to pay him is just another sign.
It may have led to thinking an aggressive bargaining stance and a hold-out would force a trade.
The flaw in the “trade me” strategy always has been that it discounts the player’s value and what teams will offer, making the trade all the more difficult.
Far from avoiding a bad deal for a prized prospect, the Red Wings do not want to trade Athanasiou, at all. They want to play him.
Unless they get an improbable offer, they will likely let the speedy guy with good hands and apparently keen offensive instincts play in Europe, and revisit the issue next summer.
But the Red Wings must also take stock of the dispute.
Regardless of Athanasiou’s feelings towards the franchise, it is possible the Wings could have done more to keep him in the fold.
The franchise should revisit those issues.
Prized free agents are not exactly flocking to the club, these days. Pavel Datsyuk left for Russia complaining that the joy he sought in hockey in the NHL had become a burden. Last season, they waived Marin Frk, who begins this one ablaze.
Young stars to re-sign
Two other young, prospective stars Larkin and Mantha, must be re-signed at the end of this season.
While saving some cap space for them is important, they must be confident in their future with the Red Wings.
After all, they are playing this season as one of the oldest teams in hockey, arguably six seasons into rebuilding.
It is true that denying ice time, especially in the case of young players, is a training device. Larkin and Mantha both have felt that lash. And those before them are legion, including members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
If concern about his future with the team is what is driving Athanasiou out, it seems overblown.
Perhaps an unfortunate reaction will cost him a career paralleling the resurrection of a fabled franchise, a reconstruction for which he might someday claim a considerable role.
But it is up to the Red Wings, in no small part, to establish an understanding with a player and his family of how his career will be nurtured.
Perhaps they have tried, and Athanasiou will not understand.
But Switzerland is no alternative for a player of his promise. The Wings should not trade him, in part, because he has so much of it.
And if the relationship is, in fact, fractured, everyone involved has a lot of explaining to do.