Detroit Red Wings have issues (Trending Topics)

 

Here’s what’s so wild about the Detroit Red Wings:

Everyone agrees they’re bad. Everyone agrees they’re rebuilding. Everyone agrees they’ve got a ton of dead money on the books for years to come; they have the highest payroll in the league right now (albeit before they LTIR Johan Franzen for another season).

So the idea that they would now be even thinking about jerking around one of the few promising young players they actually have on the NHL roster is a sign of just how poorly run they are.

There’s a lot to like about Andreas Athanasiou. Thanks to his incredible speed and skill level, he’s very fun to watch, which for a team that’s about to spend several seasons losing a hell of a lot of hockey games in a brand new rink, should be important to the club first and foremost. From that perspective it’s almost immaterial that he’s actually good; even if he were only okay and an entertainment draw, that would still be something this team could market.

But Athanasiou also happens to be good: He was fifth on a pretty dismal team in points per 60 last year (nearly 2.0 at 5-on-5), and even free of context that feels like something you take. More important, he was first in goals per 60, scoring more than one-and-a-quarter every hour he was on the ice.

He got a nice little spot playing primarily with Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek, who were decent performers on the team, though they seem to have gotten the benefit of playing mostly second- and third-line talent for a good chunk of the season (which makes sense given the line’s collective quality). His underlying numbers were pretty rotten, but one suspects that this has more to do with the quality of the defensemen behind him than the forwards on his wing. Xavier Ouellet and Danny DeKeyser aren’t exactly world-beaters even against middling competition.

But as always, when viewing stats contextually, you have to say that if guys seem to do well against lower-level competition, that might portend better results if he were to be moved up the depth chart. Is he going to supplant Gustav Nyquist on the top line? Of course not, but he should be getting more time on the power play. However, Detroit ceded Justin Abdelkader more than a minute of extra TOI on the man advantage than Athanasiou.

That’s borderline negligence, but you gotta pay your, ahem, “stars.”

Which, frankly, that’s the whole issue here. Detroit’s “culture,” such as it is, seems geared toward ensuring older guys who aren’t very good get first crack at everything. That’s certainly true of cap dollars, because guys like Abdelkader, Darren Helm, DeKeyser, Jonathan Ericsson — guys who clearly aren’t worth their AAV and clearly weren’t worth it the day those contracts were signed — take up a huge chunk of the team’s cap and seem to have no actual accountability there. Maybe that’s fair enough, because you can’t expect guys who aren’t good to not-take contracts that overpay them, and you can’t blame them when they don’t live up to the deals because, well, they were never going to. But the problem persists.

The Red Wings are over the cap right now. With this roster. And that’s why they probably feel like they need to squeeze Athanasiou. The argument against the player, in this case, is that he’s only played 101 NHL games, and only scored 27 goals and 43 points in them. But again, when you average fewer than 12 minutes a night for your career, with little to no power play time, you’re not being put in a position to rack up points in the first place, especially given who he’s had to play with.

To that end, it’s worth noting that while Athanasiou can only boast 27 goals for his career, only one of them was on the power play. Just three of his 16 assists came that way as well. So you’re looking at a guy who has 26-13-39 in 101 career games, but that’s with him playing almost entirely on at 5-on-5.

How’s this for a stat: Out of the nearly 500 NHL players who played at least 600 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Athanasiou ranked 11th in goals per 60, just behind James van Riemsdyk and Evander Kane.

Again, context matters (he was tied with little-used Brett Connolly, after all), but if you’re that high over 64 games, you probably deserve a bigger role, and that, in turn, probably necessitates more money. You can see Detroit’s arguments against it, but it’s not 2006 any more, and using stuff like goals and assists as the only way to assess player value is probably the kind of thinking that got Ken Holland into this mess in the first place.

The larger point here is not that the Red Wings have mismanaged the player — which they have — but mismanaged the roster and cap in such a way that one of their better young contributors may or may not be seriously considering an offer to go play in the KHL. And really, who can blame him? Not only will he probably make more in one season (tax-free) in Russia than he would over two years at whatever Detroit wants him to take, but he would instantly be the best player on the Canadian Olympic team and, as a bonus, he wouldn’t have to play for an awful Red Wings team.

The added benefit for the Wings here, too, is obvious: Without Athanasiou in a potentially expanded role, they’re a worse team. That means fewer points, better draft position, etc.

Honestly, this just boils down to a simple case of Ken Holland turning out his pockets, saying he can’t pay one of the few actual good players on the roster because he gave it all to bad players instead. Yeah, “I don’t have any money left to give you” is a true statement here, but whose fault is that?

Playing hardball like this would have been a good idea with, like, Ericsson or Helm. It’s not Athanasiou’s fault that Holland doesn’t know how to assess talent or manage a salary cap. But Holland has never been asked to suffer the consequences for that. Athanasiou, for some reason, is.

Whether this results in a short-term deal and acrimony, an escape to the KHL (brief, long, whatever), or a trade, that the situation even got to this point is flat-out indefensible.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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