Detroit – He excites with his blazing speed, which is about the fastest in the NHL, and Andreas Athanasiou’s nine goals and five assists in 37 games played during the regular season are evidence of offensive skill in spare minutes.
The 21-year-old rookie averaged 9:01 per game during the regular season, once his former coach in Grand Rapids, Jeff Blashill, summoned Athanasiou from the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate Feb. 5 for the rest of the season.
Athanasiou appeared in each of the remaining 31 games.
Even though he had not been playing all that well for the Griffins, Blashill said he believed he could take the risk.
But he played Athanasiou 10 minutes or more in only 10 of the 31 games, and 15 minutes only once.
In two games against the Lightning, in which the Wings have twice failed to produce more than two goals against goalie Ben Bishop, Athanasiou is averaging 8:09.
“I get asked,” Blashill said, of the speedster’s time on ice. “Obviously this seems to be a hot topic.
“I like Double-A as a player,” he said, using one of Athanasiou’s nicknames. “I think Double-A is a good player.”
But, using two of the Lightning’s talented young stars, Tyler Johnson, 25, and Nikita Kucherov, 22, as measuring sticks, Blashill said Athanasiou has some developing yet to do.
“Johnson was the MVP of the American League,” Blashill said. “Kucherov’s numbers in the American League were off the charts. Double-A wasn’t at that level in the American League.
“Double-A is a good player who’s growing. Double-A will prove whether or not he can be an elite player, but when he left the American League he was not an elite player. So, to think that he’s all of a sudden going to come here and be an elite player is, I think, asking a lot of him.”
If social media is a reasonable gauge, Red Wings fans are increasingly uncomfortable with a roster that is not producing enough wins since the beginning of March to suggest that a successful playoff run is in the works, let alone a deep run toward the stated goal of the club, according to Blashill, of winning the Stanley Cup.
Some fans would like to see a far quicker transition to players like Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha, another young offensive talent who played in 10 games from March 15 to April 2 before he was a healthy scratch for three games and then returned to the Griffins.
But the Wings’ personnel moves in late season, including the benching of defenseman Brendan Smith and forward Tomas Jurco and calling up veteran forward Joakim Andersson, are plainly intended to bolster team defense, which has been a problem for much of the season, along with lagging scoring.
Blashill has said he would like to see a better complete game from Athanasiou, with defensive improvements.
That is far from unusual for an NHL rookie, especially late in the season and in the playoffs. Defense is critical in those big games, and it can be an acquired skill that requires some patience from both young players and coaches.
Exposing the players too early can come at the expense of not only the confidence of a young competitor, but at risk of a playoff spot, game or even a series.
Patience might not please a fan base, especially with the Wings struggling to make the playoffs and down 2-0 in the conference quarterfinals. But it might bring tighter defense, a better chance to win and better career development for the players affected.
And those are clearly the Red Wings’ intentions when it comes to Athanasiou.
“What I have thought is that he’s been able to show flashes of elite, and that’s why we’ve used him in the minutes that we’ve used him. I got him out there last night in a critical moment late in the game with Pavs and Z, and in those moments he’s got to make sure he executes at a high level,” Blashill said, mentioning Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
Athanasiou clearly wants to play more and professes complete confidence in his defensive ability, while allowing that he must make certain of the details of that part of his game to be considered a complete player.
Asked how he feels about his performance in two playoff games, Athanasiou seemed happy but not satisfied.
“Not too bad,” he said. “Obviously, it’s been a little limited. I’m making the most of it and just being ready when I get the call and go on the ice.
“You have quite a few minutes in between there when you sit on the bench and you do your best to get your legs going, especially with my game being speed.
“I’ve got to make sure that my legs are always going to be going,” said the native of London, Ontario. “So whether it’s getting on the ice during a commercial or timeouts, or just moving, moving up and down on the bench, just so whenever I get to go there, I’m ready to go.”
He recalled being in a similar position, down 2-0 after an opponent’s two wins at home, last season against the Toronto Marlies in the Calder Cup playoffs. The Griffins came storming back, under Blashill and with Athanasiou, for three consecutive wins to take the five-game series.
“The mindset right now is come back home and, you know, they’ve won their home games so there’s no reason to think (we) can’t do the same,” Athanasiou said. “Your home games are definitely big, and you never know what can happen if you take care of your games at home.
“It’s two teams that want to win. And they’re going to be grinding, they’re going to be fighting. They’re going to be tough.”