Everything about Andreas Athanasiou, particularly his dreadful and league-worst plus-minus of minus-45, has to be viewed through the prism of him playing for the Detroit Red Wings. But after a trade to the Edmonton Oilers Monday, the 25-year-old will be better on a superior team, and has the chance to be much, much better if he can find chemistry with the best player in the world.
This much we know. Athanasiou can match Connor McDavid’s speed stride for stride and it might be the first time in McDavid’s career that he has someone alongside him who can skate almost as quickly as he can. But if pure speed were the only criterion in determining value as an NHL player, Athanasiou would be a superstar. And he’s not. Because he has his warts. He’s inconsistent and his play away from the puck leaves something to be desired, hence his status as the clubhouse leader for the green jacket this season.
But this is undoubtedly an upgrade for the Oilers. McDavid deserved to be playing with players of a higher quality than Sam Gagner – who was dealt to Detroit along with two second-round picks – and Alex Chiasson. This deal conceivably leaves him with Athanasiou and Zack Kassian once the latter returns from his seven-game suspension on Feb. 29. That’s a very good top line, one that is supplemented by the second unit of Leon Draisaitl between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. It simply cannot be underestimated the enormous effect Yamamoto has had on the Oilers this season. His emergence as a legitimate NHL winger has solidified that line and now by getting Athanasiou, the Oilers have a top-six that is as balanced and dangerous as any in the league.
There is obviously a familiarity between Oilers GM Ken Holland and Athanasiou. Holland’s administration in Detroit drafted and developed Athanasiou and the two locked horns in 2017 when Athanasiou sat out training camp and the start of the season in a contract dispute. Will Athanasiou get the long-term deal he’s been seeking from Holland this time around? Well, much of that will be dependent upon how well he plays down the stretch and in the playoffs. Athanasiou is a restricted free agent, albeit one with arbitration rights and a guaranteed qualifying offer of at least $3 million this summer.
And it’s also important to note that for the complete tire fire this season has become in Detroit, Athanasiou is just one year removed from a 30-goal season playing primarily with Dylan Larkin, who is almost as fast as McDavid. Playing with players as quick and talented as McDavid – and to a lesser extent Larkin – requires a player to do more than just skate to the net and put his stick down. You need a player who thinks close to McDavid’s level and puts himself in the right place and with the right anticipation to know when the pass from seemingly nowhere is coming. Perhaps Athanasiou can do that, maybe not. Even if Yamamoto moves up to the first line to play with McDavid and Athanasiou goes to the second unit with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers are a better team today than they were yesterday.
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