Tampa, Fla. — It was evident to see last season, whenever Frans Nielsen centered a line with Andreas Athanasiou on a wing, the two had a good feeling between them. There was a sense of where each one was on the ice.
With Athanasiou preparing to play his first game this season — likely Thursday in Tampa — coach Jeff Blashill has had Athanasiou working mostly with Nielsen, with Darren Helm on the other wing.
The idea of reuniting with Nielsen brought a large smile to Athanasiou’s face.
“He’s a lot of fun to play with,” said Athanasiou after Thursday’s morning skate. “I think it’s going to come back naturally (the chemistry between the two) and it’ll go from there.”
Coach Jeff Blashill is hopeful Athanasiou’s return from a contract stalemate with the Red Wings provides a “jolt” to the team.
Individually, Nielsen could use one, specifically, as the Danish forward has two goals and no assists (two points) in 10 games is a minus-3.
Having a potentially explosive scorer such as Athanasiou could help Nielsen, who along with Thomas Vanek last season formed an effective line.
“He’s played with such highly skilled players (with the New York Islanders),” said Athanasiou, as to why Nielsen is so effective. “He’s a veteran in this league, and he knows how to play. If you get open and find those spots on the ice, he’ll find you.
“We play well off each other, we both have a lot of speed, and Helmer has a lot of speed, too, so it’ll be good.”
Blashill wouldn’t commit to any line combinations after Thursday’s morning skate, or after practice the previous day.
But Blashill did admit to the chemistry between Nielsen and Athanasiou. And Anthony Mantha, for that matter.
“He’s had good chemistry with Nielsen (but) the other thing I have to look at some point is he’s had good chemistry with (Anthony) Mantha in the past,” Blashill said. “He (Athanasiou) was playing center more at that point in Grand Rapids and he might at some point play center for us.
“Let’s see where it goes. But he’s had chemistry with Nielsen, so it’s something we’ll look at.”
Praise for Ericsson
When defenseman Danny DeKeyser (ankle) returns to the lineup, don’t expect Blashill to reunite DeKeyser with Trevor Daley.
Blashill made it clear he likes what the pairing of Daley with Jonathan Ericsson has brought.
Ericsson’s size and defensive instincts have blended well with Daley’s ability to move the puck.
“Johnny Ericsson was our best defenseman (in Buffalo Tuesday),” Blashill said. “Him and Daley have been a good pairing. I don’t think we’ll throw DK into the fire right away. We’ll slip him in and adjust the pairings as needed.
“But Johnny and Dales have been a real good pairing, with the exception of the Vancouver game (Sunday’s ugly 4-1 loss), which all of us were awful.”
Blashill feels the two defensemen complement each other well.
“Johnny gives Dales some meat, some muscle, some heaviness, and Dales does a good job of skating the puck out,” Blashill said.
Witkowski on 'D'
Luke Witkowski has been a forward when he’s been in the lineup, but Blashill has had Witkowski — a healthy scratch against Tampa — working with the defense the last few days.
With Athanasiou back on the roster, it gives the versatile Witkowski an opportunity to get reps on defense, if he were to be needed on the blue line.
“Luke has done a good job,” Blashill said. “He doesn’t get a lot of minutes but that’s a little bit of the role (Witkowski has) and it allows other guys to have those minutes. We try to practice him, and right now Luke’s not in the lineup, if he was in our lineup we’d have him at forward. But when he’s not, we try to practice him at D(efense) so he can get some practice (there).”