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A ’significant' KHL offer to Athanasiou will put pressure on the Red Wings

Andreas Athanasiou's agent confirmed that the 23-year-old restricted free agent has a contract offer from the KHL, and now the ball is the Red Wings' court.

Tuesday, in exploring the Red Wings’ options should Henrik Zetterberg retire following two more seasons in Detroit, Andreas Athanasiou’s name come up on a couple of occasions.

After last season’s disappointing end to the quarter-century playoff streak, the Red Wings should be attempting to build around the few young stars they have on their roster, which includes Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Athanasiou. And while Athanasiou may seem the odd man out when named alongside two first-round picks, he stands to be as much a part of Detroit’s future. At 23, he’s already proven to be among the most exciting young forwards in the league if for no other reason than when he gets the puck on his stick you sit up and pay attention. Lightning fast with a scoring touch to match, his 18 goals and 29 points last season were impressive considering he saw less than 14 minutes per night.

But Athanasiou, a restricted free agent, has yet to sign a new contract with Detroit, and, according to his agent, has received an offer that’s worth taking into consideration from the KHL.

Vancouver’s News 1130’s Rick Dhaliwal reported Tuesday that talks between the Red Wings and Athanasiou were “going nowhere” and that the center — who has primarily played on the wing in the NHL — could be signing in the KHL in the near future, and Dhaliwal’s report was followed up in the early evening by confirmation from The Athletic’s Craig Custance. Custance reached out to Athanasiou’s agent, Darren Ferris, who replied to the inquiry about KHL interest by noting Athanasiou has “received a considerable offer that is significant.”

There’s a few reasons why that’s concerning for Detroit, too, and it starts with the potential to match any other offer — KHL or otherwise. 

Per CapFriendly, Detroit currently has $78.95 million tied up in contracts for this coming season, and that causes some problems. Signing Athanasiou to a new deal isn’t exactly impossible, teams are allowed to exceed the salary cap in the off-season, but the difficulty comes in getting down to $75 million and being cap compliant by the time the season starts. Detroit will get some salary relief — around $3.95 million worth, maximum — by putting Johan Franzen on long-term injured reserve when the season begins, but that means any additional signings leave Detroit with next to no wiggle room under the cap. On the high end, Detroit may be looking at $1 million.

Signing a deal worth $1 million wouldn’t really provide Athanasiou with all that much of a raise, either. He earned $575,000 in base salary last season with the Red Wings, but that was on his entry-level deal. Getting Athanasiou under contract is almost certainly going to take at least double that wage, especially as he flirted with the 20-goal plateau last season.

So, what are the Red Wings’ options?

Well, Detroit GM Ken Holland could try to call Athanasiou’s bluff and continue to try to hammer out a deal with the mindset that there’s no way the up-and-comer will pass up an NHL job to play overseas. After all, this could simply be a way for Athanasiou to gain some bargaining power, as he really have any right now. As a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, Athanasiou doesn’t have much to work with and the Red Wings, if they so chose, could just let him sit on the sidelines until he wants to sign on and play. It’s what other teams have done in the past with RFAs, and it happened just last season with the Winnipeg Jets and Jacob Trouba. However, calling Athanasiou’s bluff might be a gamble when a trip to the KHL could also come with a shot at playing in the Olympics.

Another option would be trading away a current roster player, maybe one whose usefulness is in question to the present-day construction of the Red Wings, in order to make space for Athanasiou. How much salary Detroit needs to clear will be reliant on Athanasiou’s asking price, of course, but the likes of Darren Helm or Jonathan Ericsson could be trade options, if Holland can navigate their no-trade clauses and anyone is willing to take on either of the roughly $4-million salaries.

Finally, Detroit can choose to trade Athanasiou, though one would imagine the Red Wings would be extremely reluctant to do so. The franchise needs young talent to refresh its roster and Athanasiou is one of those players. Trading him would likely only land picks or possibly a prospect in return — given their cap situation, Detroit can’t really take on a current roster player — and there’s no guarantee the Red Wings can land a talent that can be NHL ready in the next two to three seasons.

If push comes to shove, it probably wouldn’t be hard to find a trade partner. Offensively, it seems like Athanasiou has a lot to give. He was dynamite at 5-on-5, scoring 15 goals, as many as John Tavares, Jeff Carter and Evgeny Kuznetsov managed in 2016-17, and his points per 60 minutes rate was as good as that of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Sean Monahan and Blake Wheeler last season. Athanasiou has value and plenty of offensive upside, with potential to mature into a speedy second-line forward who contributes 20-plus goals and 40-some points on a consistent basis.

The Red Wings no doubt want him to be scoring those points in Detroit, however. But until they come to terms on a new contract, it seems Athanasiou’s future in Hockeytown — or even in the NHL — is a bit uncertain.

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