Consistency eludes Athanasiou; Wings future uncertain

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — Andreas Athanasiou remains a bit of a puzzle.

As the Red Wings settle into the offseason, one of the questions they’ll face heading into the summer will be what to do with the talented, but frustrating, forward.

After a good start to his season, especially coming off a contract holdout (17 points in 31 games), Red Wings forward Andreas Athanasiou struggled mightily the second half of the season (16 points in 40 games).

Few, if any, players on the Red Wings have Athanasiou’s speed and skill combination.

But few, also, can become invisible for long stretches like Athanasiou.

A restricted free agent again this summer — after a rocky negotiation last year that lasted 10 games into the regular season — Athanasiou’s contract issues should be dealt with much quicker this time given he has arbitration rights, which will ensure a contract by mid-August.

But would the Red Wings be better off trading the young forward for a young defenseman who is available (if there are any)?

When asked about his future during last week’s locker cleanout, Athanasiou, 23, reiterated his desire to remain with the Red Wings’ organization.

“This is one of the greatest organizations in the NHL,” Athanasiou said. “If I get the opportunity to play here, it’s unbelievable. The main thing is trying to get this team back to a playoff position, so you’re a contender for the Stanley Cup.”

The opportunity to play more has been an issue for two seasons.

Athanasiou saw his ice time slightly increase this season (15 minutes, 19 seconds, from 13:28 last year), but the inconsistency of playing time mirrored his production and overall play.

After a good start to his season, especially coming off a contract holdout (17 points in 31 games), Athanasiou struggled mightily the second half of the season (16 points in 40 games).

Athanasiou also had a team-worst minus-15 plus-minus rating.

“You have to be ready; it’s that type of business you’re in,” Athanasiou said. “Whether it’s nine minutes, or 10 or 15, or 20, you have to be to try to do the best you can.

“Obviously you want to play a lot, and if I do play, I think can produce more and give the team a better chance of winning.

“(But) there are a lot of guys in this room that have to play. There’s a lot of things that go (into it) and you can’t really look to much into it. Whatever line combination (coach Jeff Blashill) puts out there, he’s trying to win hockey games.

“You have to respect that and be ready with whatever you got.”

When several veterans, including captain Henrik Zetterberg, said certain players were playing “poke and hope” hockey after a loss to Vegas in March — not concentrating on the defensive side as much — Athanasiou was clearly one of the players who were in that group.

Zetterberg said at locker clean-out day that Dylan Larkin’s rise this season, while committing himself to play passionately at both ends of the rink, is a good example for Athanasiou going forward.

Red Wings forward Andreas Athanasiou was a team-worst minus-15 last season.

“If he completes his game, I’m pretty sure his production will do the same,” Zetterberg said.

Blashill has talked often the last two seasons about Athanasiou’s need to have a consistent approach to every shift, every game.

When Blashill met with the media after locker cleanout, he again touched on Athanasiou learning about life in the NHL.

“My message to Double-A was, I as a coach, have to know what I’m getting every single shift,” Blashill said. “The growth in him is going to be to learn to work and compete on every single shift.

“If I’m guessing whether or not he’s going to work and compete, it’s hard to keep putting him out there because I don’t know what I’m getting.

“That consistency level and work and compete is going to be critical for Double-A.”

Athanasiou, though, felt he showed during the course of the season he can compete on a consistent basis.

“I can compete at a high level,” Athanasiou said. “I can compete in playoffs. I kind of showed that the last time were in the playoffs, when I got in the Tampa series (2016). Competing at a high level is very important.

“There’s a lot of times where the stage is big here and you have to compete on that level, and I think I do a real good job of competing on the big stage and at the highest level.”

Whether that stage next season remains in Detroit, or somewhere else, will be something to watch this summer.