Red Wings' Athanasiou likely to soak up Zetterberg's minutes

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Detroit forward Andreas Athanasiou tries to shoot the puck past Detroit defenseman Matt Register during practice.

Traverse City —  Someone, or more likely several players, will benefit with more ice time and responsibility with Henrik Zetterberg not in the Red Wings lineup. 

One player that quickly comes to mind, though, is Andreas Athanasiou.

It appears Athanasiou will be playing more at center, probably playing with Thomas Vanek on one wing — for Sunday’s Red & White scrimmage rookie Filip Zadina will be on the other wing, an interesting line to be sure — and a likelihood of increased playing time.

If that’s the case, Athanasiou has the opportunity to reach the potential he’s teased but has yet been unable to consistently exhibit.

“It’s just consistently playing,” Athanasiou said. “When I get those consistent minutes, I consistently produce. So as long as those minutes don’t fluctuate from a lot to a little, if it’s a comfortable amount of minutes, I can definitely produce with it.

“Anytime you can take another step and become a bigger role player in this league, it’s definitely a good feeling,” said Athanasiou Saturday after the Red Wings completed a training camp practice. “It’s going to be sad not being on the ice with Z, but everyone is going to have to step up and take over those minutes that he played.

“And everyone will do a good job stepping up and I’m happy to be part of that, too.”

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Athanasiou, 24, had a difficult start last season, unable to reach an agreement on a contract until after the season began.

Athanasiou scored 16 goals with 17 assists (33 points) in 71 games, numbers that were barely an uptick over the year before when he had 18 goals (29 points) in only 64 games.

Similar to the year before, Athanasiou saw his ice time fluctuate as coach Jeff Blashill wasn’t entirely satisfied with Athanasiou’s work ethic.

But several days into camp, with a chance to establish himself in the lineup, Athanasiou appears ready to grab this opportunity.

“Anytime you get older in the league and take steps in the right direction, you kind of grow as a player and grow as a person and become an NHL player,” Athanasiou said. “That’s what I want to be.”

With Zetterberg retiring Athanasiou is being switched to center, at least at the beginning of the season, where Athanasiou has played the majority of his career.

Blashill figures Athanasiou’s speed and playmaking ability can be utilized there more than on the wing.

“The majority of Andreas’ career he’s been a center, that’s his natural position,” Blashill said. “He played center for me in Grand Rapids and he did a very good job.

“I just want him to play very good hockey. He’s been real good so far. His work ethic and has been great and his competitiveness, and if he does those two things, he’s an excellent hockey player.

“I’m hoping he can build on the first few days of camp.”

Blashill said ice time will depend with production – with any player.

“Any player would argue more minutes will equal more production,” Blashill said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. I’d also argue there’s lots of players in the league that have found ways to be very good without lots of minutes — and then what generally happens then is more minutes follow.”

Blashill is optimistic reuniting Athanasiou with Thomas Vanek — the two were linemates two years ago when Vanek was with the Wings — will prove beneficial for both players.

“If I’m an offensive player I’d want to play with Thomas Vanek,” Blashill said. “He thinks the game at a level few guys think it in the NHL. He knows how to create space and draw people toward him and put pucks toward space.”

Athanasiou likes the idea of working with Vanek on the ice.

“Just playing with a player so highly skilled as him, it makes the game so much easier,” Athanasiou said. “When the puck is on his tick, you don’t have to worry too much. You know it’s going to be in the right spot.”

As for playing center, Athansiou likes the idea of playing in the middle of the ice.

“I’m comfortable with whatever position he puts me in,” Athanasiou said. “I show up and look at the lineup and see where I am and play that position, whatever it is.

“It’s (playing center) just a little more free flowing for me. Get the puck to Vanek or whoever is on the ice and use my speed to get up the ice and create open space and create offense.”

Bernier pushing

Goaltender Jonathan Bernier isn’t going to be satisfied being a backup. Bernier will push Jimmy Howard for playing time.

“I’m pushing every day,” Bernier said. “That’s my job and that’s Howie’s job, to push each other and get this team better and win games. That’s my mindset going in.”

Blashill said a key reason for signing Bernier was the need for the Wings to get consistently elite goaltending every game, and not relying on just one goalie (Howard) for much of the season.

Bernier can give Howard a regular breather, and maybe more if Bernier can provide the goaltending he showed in Colorado (2.85 goals-against average, .913 save percentage).

Colorado was a surprise team in the NHL last season despite a young roster. Bernier believes the same is possible with the Wings.

“When I signed in Colorado everyone was like ‘Ah, I don’t know’ but what I saw on paper of what they (the Avalanche) had last year, it made me want to go to Colorado, and it’s the same with this team, too,”  Bernier said. “Losing Z (Zetterberg), you can’t replace a guy like that. But I do think we have a great team.”

Ice chips

Blashill said Martin Frk and Justin Abdelkader will be unavailable for Sunday’s scrimmage. Frk will not be ready, at least, until the Red Wings return to Detroit Wednesday, while Abdelkader is awaiting the birth of his child.

… Zadina had two goals in Saturday’s scrimmage and was looking forward to playing on Athanasiou’s line Sunday.

“They are pretty good players so it’s a pleasure for me to play with them,” said Zadina of Athanasiou and Vanek. “I will try my best to play with them at the same level. For me, it’s going to be a huge game.”