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Slow Down, You Move Too Fast: Athanasiou learning to harness speed with age

Coming off a 30-goal season, what’s the next step for Wings speedster Athanasiou? Ease off the fast-forward button and press pause once in a while.

It’s tantamount to asking which member of the Beatles was the better songwriting genius, Paul McCartney or John Lennon. Rolling Stone magazine posed that question a few years back and bailed by naming the McCartney/Lennon duo second behind Bob Dylan. So for hockey purposes, let’s say Edmonton’s Connor McDavid is Dylan and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou are Lennon and McCartney.

We’re not going to be Rolling Stone, darn it. We’re going to give you a definitive answer. So who is faster between Detroit Red Wings teammates Larkin and Athanasiou? Our expert panel for this query is the two players in question and their coach, Jeff Blashill.

Larkin: “I don’t know.” (Not real helpful.)

Athanasiou: “(Larkin) might win straight away, but if there were some turns in there, I might be able to get him. He’s a top-notch skater, and I try to keep up with him.” (Getting there, but not good enough.)

Blashill: “Oh, ‘Double A’ is faster than Larkin. I believe that, and that’s not a knock on Larkin, who’s super-fast, but ‘Double A’ has an explosiveness to him that is pretty unparalleled.”

So there you have it, although, when given a moment to think about it, Athanasiou might have an even more compelling inquiry: “Honestly, what I started thinking about now is, who are two players on a different team who could keep up with both of us?” It’s a good question, but not one Athanasiou has had a lot of time to ponder, because he’s busy doing everything…at warp speed. Ever since he was six and his father, Stanley, would slingshot him down the ice as he learned to skate, Athanasiou has always had a need for speed. When he wasn’t playing hockey, he did track and field and played soccer and basketball, anywhere he could exploit his quick feet. “I always had that fast-twitch growing up,” Athanasiou said. “I just wanted to go fast. I wanted to run fast, I wanted to jump high.”

For someone with such a penchant for quickness, success in the NHL has not been a rapid, linear path for Athanasiou. He enjoyed a major breakout season with the Red Wings in 2018-19, scoring 30 goals and finishing second to Larkin on the Detroit roster in goals and points, but it has been a few years in the making.

There is a real sense in Detroit that better days are on the horizon and, at 25, Athanasiou is a big part of that optimism. Athanasiou pretty much shed the “underrated” tag with his performance last season. It’s clear he can do a lot of good things with the puck at high speed. Now the task is to do it consistently in all areas of the ice and to be known for more than just a guy who blazes around the rink.

It’s certainly not inconceivable Athanasiou has another level, but that level has to come in the form of a more well-rounded game. Blashill puts Athanasiou in that group of 20-something players on the Wings who are at a crucial point in their careers. “To me, he’s at the age in which young players go from being real good offensive players to really, really, really good winners,” Blashill said. “Learning that 200-foot game to go along with it…I think that’s one of the biggest keys is learning how to produce offense but still playing winning hockey, and that’s not to say that any of (our young players) haven’t done a decent job of that, but that’s the next step for all of them, all of our young players, including ‘Double A.’ ”

Perhaps taking it down a gear once in a while might be a key to success for Athanasiou. In a pre-season game, Athanasiou sprung himself for a breakaway using his speed (which was good), only to crash into the boards after he scored (not so good). He was a little banged up and missed a couple of exhibition games, but it may have served as a warning that there is sometimes a downside to going that fast.

Blashill acknowledges there is sometimes a “recklessness” to Athanasiou’s speed, something the coach is not about to discourage. “It can get you in trouble a lot of times, too,” Athanasiou said. “It can put you out of position quick. You take too many strides, you get out of that lane. So it’s (about) using your speed at the right time. I think that is what’s most effective. You can’t just fly around the ice at all times. It’s a gift and a curse a little bit. I’ve loved going fast my whole life, but those collisions are at high speed, too. I’m only 25, but it’s been a good 10, 15 years of high-speed collisions happening along the way.”

The Red Wings are smack-dab in the middle of a rebuild and probably won’t be very good this season. Success in Detroit in 2019-20 will be measured by how players such as Larkin, Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi can push the needle upward as players. With a deep prospect pool and what looks like an AHL championship contender in Grand Rapids, the Wings have help on the way.

Athanasiou has one more year on his contract before becoming an RFA with arbitration rights. So it’s a crucial season for Athanasiou to make his case for arbitration or perhaps earn a long-term deal. It will also be a year for him to continue to assert himself as a legitimate impact player in the NHL.“Anyone who watches, they can see,” he said. “I think if you’re good, you’re good. You can only be in the shadows so long. You hear that you’re underrated, whatever, it doesn’t really faze me too much. I know that my game will take care of itself.

“If you’re good, you’re going to be seen no matter what. You can only be hidden for so long.” – Ken Campbell

BEST-KEPT SECRET

Boston Bruins: During Boston’s run to the 2019 Cup final, “The Sean Kuraly line has been the best tonight” became a popular refrain. Among the 17 Bruins who played at least 200 minutes at 5-on-5 in the playoffs, Kuraly ranked first in points per 60. Big, strong and tireless, he’s a matchup nightmare.

Buffalo Sabres:Colin Miller carries a reputation as a solid puck-moving D-man, but despite his success in Boston and Vegas, he played highly sheltered minutes. As a Sabre, he has a chance to blossom into a household name with more responsibility. He is slated for Buffalo’s No. 1 power-play unit.

Carolina Hurricanes: Look at the league leaders for penalties drawn, and you’ll find many of the NHL’s top stars, from Connor McDavid to Nathan MacKinnon to…Warren Foegele. The young left winger drew 31 minors last season despite playing only 12:30 per night. Foegele was also a beast in the playoffs.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Every training camp, coach John Tortorella puts the Blue Jackets through a timed, two-mile run. Swedish pivot Alexander Wennberg ran it in an incredible 11:02 to win this year, while finishing second to 6-foot-6 prospect D-man Doyle Somerby in 2018 with a nearly-as-impressive 11:24.

Detroit Red Wings: Is Filip Hronek Detroit’s long-term power-play quarterback? He earned opportunities late last year with Mike Green injured. From Jan. 1 onward, Hronek had 19 points in 31 games, playing close to 21 minutes. He’ll open 2019-20 as a top-four blueliner and has breakout potential.

Florida Panthers: Give winger Frank Vatrano a chance, and he’ll give you goals. He popped 24 last year playing just 14:40 a night. Among 365 forwards with 500-plus minutes at 5-on-5, Vatrano ranked 44th in goals per 60. Since debuting in 2015-16, he ranks in the top five in the NHL in shots per 60.

Montreal Canadiens:Victor Mete has zero goals through 120 NHL games. He’s a defensive D-man who succeeds via positioning and mobility. Intimidation isn’t an option at 5-foot-9. Mete and Shea Weber were fourth among ‘D’ pairs in Corsi for per 60, so they “shut down” by having the puck more.

New Jersey Devils: Amidst all the flashy names New Jersey brought in over the summer, the Devils know they have a gem coming back in versatile center Blake Coleman. He’s a demon on the penalty kill, with five shorthanded points last year and finishing second in the NHL with 25 shots during a kill.

New York Islanders: Anthony Beauvillier makes the most of his shifts. Though he only averaged 14:39 of ice time per game last season, the two-way left winger was one of the Islanders’ best players when it came to drawing penalties (16). Even better? Beauvillier only took four minor penalties himself.

New York Rangers:As a prospect, Tony Deangelo was viewed as an offensive D-man, but it’s worth noting he was up there with the rest of the Rangers’ defense corps last year when it came to blocking shots, averaging 1.3 per game. On the offensive side, he was one of the team’s best shootout shooters.

Ottawa Senators: As a rookie winger, Connor Brown played a lot with Auston Matthews, and the result was a 20-goal effort. With each year, however, Brown’s role and ice time shrunk. He arrives in Ottawa fresh off a measly eight-goal year. But he’s still just 25. The Sens will give him every chance.

Philadelphia Flyers: Oskar Lindblom was a fifth-round pick but has developed quite nicely. He was one of the Flyers’ best possession players last year, behind only Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux. As a rookie left winger, Lindblom had 33 points in less than 14 minutes of ice time per game.

Pittsburgh Penguins: He may not have the offensive hops of Kris Letang or Justin Schultz, but Brian Dumoulin gets the job done on the back end. The veteran defender was one of the Pens’ better possession players last season, even though he started the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Mathieu Joseph was drafted 120th overall in 2015, but after one NHL season he ranks 30th in that class in goals. The winger managed 13 despite playing just 11 minutes a game in 2018-19. He was 44th out of 574 NHLers (min. 500 minutes) in hits per 60 at 5-on-5. Another late-round steal.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Negative hype can mask a secret positive. Right winger William Nylander was maligned for his seven-goal flop in 2018-19 after reporting in December, but he actually set career highs in shots, individual scoring chances and individual high-danger chances per 60. He was unlucky.

Washington Capitals: If you’re a young player in Washington, T.J. Oshie is the veteran you likely see the most. The affable right winger often stays on the ice after practice to help any kids who are making their way on the Caps. With a Cup ring and extensive experience, Oshie has a lot of wisdom to impart.

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