Andreas Athanasiou has spent the past two weeks skating in Switzerland with HC Lugano, but, after a lengthy contract dispute with the Detroit Red Wings, the 23-year-old winger appears to be prepared to pack his bags and head back to the NHL.
According to multiple reports, including from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Athanasiou and the Red Wings are heading towards a one-year deal, though the terms of such a contract are unclear. That said, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported Thursday that a one-year deal could pay more than the $1.25 million that the Red Wings had initially offered Athanasiou. In fact, MLive.com's Ansar Khan noted the salary on a one-year deal could be closer to $1.5 million, which would be a significant raise from the $575,000 base salary Athanasiou had last season.
However, such a contract would raise questions as to what the Red Wings plan to do in order to make the financials work. Reason being is that, per CapFriendly, the Red Wings have literally zero cap space with which to operate. There are a few ways Detroit can make the space necessary, mind you. Making use of long-term injured reserve could be a short-term solution for the Red Wings, as Danny DeKeyser, who has been out of action since Oct. 10 with a lower-body injury, could be heading to LTIR when Detroit and Athanasiou put pen to paper on a new contract. Finding an answer once DeKeyser returns, however, is more difficult.
Detroit could potentially rely on demotions and demotions alone to make the cap space, though there’s not a single Red Wing who can be sent down to the minors freely, meaning any demotion comes with the risk of losing a player via waivers. If that is the route Detroit chooses to take, however, David Booth seems an obvious choice to be sent to the AHL. His demotion alone won’t clear enough room for Athanasiou, though, which could mean a trade is in order. It had previously been reported that Detroit could move Riley Sheahan, who is in the final season of his deal and carries a cap hit of $2.075 million, to make room once Athanasiou signs. Trading Sheahan, or moving along another player with a similar salary, would more than take care of the cap issues associated with signing Athanasiou.
Regardless of how the Red Wings manage the cap crunch, though, getting Athanasiou back is a win. It signals the addition of one of the team’s more naturally gifted goal-scorers and a player who could be a future offensive cornerstone of the franchise. In 64 games last season, while playing limited ice time, Athanasiou managed 18 goals and 29 points, and his blazing speed made him a threat on the rush. The fact his contract will be up again at the end of the season should also make Athanasiou highly motivated to prove he’s underpaid and worth what he was asking throughout the stalemate, which could lead to an uptick in production.
As for Athanasiou, returning at this point in the campaign, when the Red Wings are only two weeks into their season, means he hasn’t missed much game action, and it ensures he gets another full big-league season under his belt during a crucial point in his development. While he surely would've been able to continue his career in Switzerland, Russia or elsewhere this season, his best chance at taking his game to the next level was to land back in the NHL.
According to Khan, Athanasiou is going to be given the opportunity to prove he can be a top-six player, too. As part of the deal, Athanasiou has reportedly “been assured his ice time will increase to between 15 and 16 minutes per game.” That would be a significant increase from the 13:28 he averaged in 2016-17 and 9:01 average he posted in 37 games during the 2015-16 season. Additionally, Athanasiou is expected to get an increased role on both special teams units. He scored one goal and four points while averaging 1:12 on the man advantage last season.
That does call into question where Athanasiou will fit, however. At present, the Red Wings’ top-six consists of Henrik Zetterberg centering Anthony Mantha and Gustav Nyquist, while Dylan Larkin centers the second line alongside Tomas Tatar and Justin Abdelkader. If coach Jeff Blashill is happy with the current composition of his top six — and he may very well be given Detroit has won four of seven thus far — it might mean a third-line role for Athanasiou with a heavier dosage of power play minutes. If that’s the case, Martin Frk would likely be the leading candidate to lose his spot in on the third unit. Frk is averaging just 12 minutes per night and less than 10 minutes an outing at even strength. Any line shuffling could be put on hold, though, if the Wings send Athanasiou to the minors for a brief conditioning stint.
But no matter how or when Detroit gets him back in the lineup, the Red Wings will be thankful to put an end to a sideshow that went on far longer, and was far more contentious, than either party wanted.
Now, here’s hoping neither side has to go through this again next summer.
UPDATE: Per TSN's Bob McKenzie, the Red Wings and Athanasiou have come to terms on a one-year, $1.387-million deal, but the deal won't be finalized until Detroit is cap compliant.
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