The Detroit Red Wings have been slow to embrace the youth movement. Gustav Nyquist was 24 years old before he played in his first full season for the Red Wings during the 2014-15 season. Alexei Marchenko is 24 years old, and he currently is in his first full season.
Outside of Dylan Larkin, who made his Red Wings debut when he was 19, Detroit has attempted to keep its players in the AHL as long as possible.
However, an aging core and injuries have forced General Manager Ken Holland to call up some of his prospects earlier than he would have liked. Andreas Athanasiou, at 21, made his debut with the Red Wings last season, and he made the roster out of training camp this season after Tomas Jurco was put on long-term injured reserve to begin the season.
Athanasiou showed flashes of brilliance last season; he scored nine goals and added five assists in 37 games. While that doesn’t look impressive by itself, when factoring in the ice time he received last year, 14 points in 37 games is quite impressive.
Of all NHL players who played at least 200 minutes at five on five, he was first in the league in individual goals scored per 60 minutes (1.40) and 19th in primary points per 60 minutes (1.80), according to Corsica. He did this while averaging just over eight minutes per game at five on five.
As productive as he was, it was hard to fathom why Athanasiou wasn’t getting more ice time. Coach Jeff Blashill said last year that he needed to improve his defensive game — it did need work, as he was third to last on the team last season in five on five score-adjusted Corsi for percentage (48.02), beating out Luke Glendening (46.63) and Drew Miller (42.71).
But after Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout win against the Philadelphia Flyers, Athanasiou, who scored the tying goal to send the game to overtime and the game-winning shootout goal, may have begun to change Blashill’s mind.
"Winning puck battles" is key here, IMO. Keep that going and he'll continue to gain Blashill's trust. https://t.co/1UvOd3ABnJ
— Brandon Peleshok (@BrandonPeleshok) November 9, 2016
As The Hockey Writers’ Brandon Peleshok points out, scoring isn’t enough for Blashill; Athanasiou also has to be responsible defensively and “win puck battles.” Clearly, Blashill was impressed with Athanasiou’s defensive game, and he was rewarded with 14:51 of ice time against the Flyers.
Not only did Athanasiou score the game-tying goal and the shootout-winning goal, but he had another scoring chance directly after the game-tying goal. In 12 games this season, Athanasiou continues to show that brilliance, with four goals and one assist, while averaging about 10 minutes of five on five ice time. He leads the team in goals scored per 60 minutes (1.90) and is second behind Thomas Vanek in primary points per 60 (2.38).
Henrik Zetterberg told MLive.com’s Ansar Khan after Tuesday’s win:
I don’t know how many times I’ve been standing here talking to you guys after a game and I’ve been telling you that he is good. It’s amazing what he does with the minutes he gets. Now, he gets a little bit more minutes. He keeps delivering.
Athanasiou is special, and the Red Wings need to continue to embrace that, even if his defensive game takes longer to develop. The Red Wings are 19th in the league in goals scored per game (2.6), and they need all the help they can get on the offensive side.
It’s good to see Blashill increase Athanasiou’s ice time, but it will be interesting to see if he pulls the reins back if Athanasiou begins to struggle.
Tom Mitsos is a writer from Michigan who covers the Red Wings and the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, for The Hockey Writers.