Detroit – When it comes to the experiment of playing Andreas Athanasiou at center, coach Jeff Blashill was direct in his analysis.
“Some nights I’ve liked it, some nights not,” Blashill said after Saturday’s 2-1 Red Wings victory over the New York Islanders.
Athanasiou scored both Wings goals, did everything defensively the Wings would want, and received a huge passing grade playing center.
“He was excellent,” Blashill said.
The two goals gave Athanasiou 26 for the season, one short of Dylan Larkin (27), who has established himself the type of two-way center the Wings would enjoy seeing Athanasiou become.
The offensive part, Athanasiou has provided rather consistently this season, no matter where he’s played. The defensive side, particularly when playing center, has been shaky.
“I didn’t like it in Tampa at all,” Blashill said of Athanasiou’s game March 9 against the Lightning.
What gave Blashill hope after Saturday’s game was that Athanasiou took to heart some video Blashill presented him, and fixed parts in his game that needed tweaking.
“I showed him a number of defensive zone clips of the Tampa game and he went out and was way better,” Blashill said. “The thing about playing center is, him and I talk about it, you have to stop in your own zone and compete like crazy. You have to slow yourself down on breakouts, be underneath the puck. If you don’t do those two things, you can’t be a center long-term.
“He competed real hard (Saturday), he was real good defensively in his defensive zone, he did the things, if he’s going to play a center, he has to play like he did (in that game).”
It’s too early to speculate whether Athanasiou will start next season at center – the draft and free agency can change the look of the roster – but Athanasiou’s development at the position would certainly give the Wings options.
“If he can be a winning center, which means a two-way center, some of the steps that Larks has had to take – and I have to remind Larks of the same thing – then we’re a better team because he’s a dynamic player,” Blashill said. “But he’s got to make sure he plays like he did (Saturday) on a consistent basis.
“As the game went along (Saturday) he turned too many pucks over. That’s something he’ll continue to work on but it’s steps at getting better.”
Athanasiou has played wing, primarily, in his Wings’ career, though he played mostly center in junior.
This is his longest consecutive stretch at center in the NHL and Athanasiou is getting increasingly comfortable.
“You have to be a lot more aware in the defensive zone, kind of being like a third defenseman, coming under the play with some speed,” Athanasiou said. “It’s something that complements my skating game, and being able to skate under the puck, going slow and getting it, then carrying the puck up ice.
“It’s something l like to do.”
Athanasiou has always liked to score goals, and he and Larkin are on the threshold of a milestone no Red Wings player has reached in a decade.
In the 2008-09 season, Marian Hossa (40 goals), Johan Franzen (34), Pavel Datsyuk (32) and Henrik Zetterberg (31) all passed the 30-goal mark.
No Red Wing has since, although Athanasiou and Larkin look capable of doing so in these final weeks of the season.
“Definitely a milestone,” said Athanasiou of reaching 30 goals. “That’s a lot of goals for sure. If I could do that it would feel good, and it’ll feel better if it comes with wins in these last games.”
Larkin believes Athansiou will get to 30, and beyond, this season.
“The way he’s playing right now, he should get that marker,” Larkin said. “He’s dynamic, an explosive scorer. The way he skated (Saturday), not many people can defend that.”
Forward Ryan Kuffner made his Wings debut Saturday playing seven minutes, with no shots.
Kuffner (Princeton) and Michigan State’s Taro Hirose (who is expected to debut Tuesday in New York against the Rangers) are likely to both get consistent time in the lineup with Justin Abdelkader (fractured foot) expected to miss the last three weeks of the season.
Blashill felt Kuffner played well in difficult circumstances.
“It’s a really, really difficult thing when you come in (to a new team this late in the season),” Blashill said. “Ryan’s had the same linemates for four years so the chemistry they’ve had there has been incredible. Now, all of a sudden, it’s new linemates, learning a new system.
“It’s one of those things where you never judge any player when they come into a situation like that.”