September 11, 2015
by Brendan Savage - mlive.com
TRAVERSE CITY – Like virtually every other player on his way up, Detroit Red Wings prospect Andreas Athanasiou is going to have to earn a roster spot in the NHL.
The speedy forward won't be given anything.
That only happens with highly touted first-round draft picks playing for struggling teams, something the Red Wings definitely are not with 24 consecutive appearances in the playoffs.
But the good news for Athanasiou – and everyone else who has played for the Grand Rapids Griffins the past three years – is the Red Wings head coach knows exactly what they can (and can't) do. There are no question marks there.
Jeff Blashill will be behind the Red Wings bench after coaching the Griffins for the past three years and that could bode well for guys like Athanasiou if Detroit dips into the minors for some manpower this season.
"I think it's a big thing," said Athanasiou, the Red Wings' fourth-round pick (110th overall) in the 2012 draft. "I played for him for a year so he was able to see me and the rest of the guys. He's got a perspective of how the players are and he pays attention to that.
"He knows what each player is capable of and knows what each player's strengths and weaknesses are. It's a big thing."
Like virtually everyone else who played for Blashill in Grand Rapids, Athanasiou has nothing but good things to say about the Red Wings new bench boss.
"He gets along well with the guys," Athanasiou said. "Every day he comes in and he's ready to go. He gets the guys going every game. I haven't seen a coach do that too many times. He has the ability to get the boys going every game and everybody wants to play for him.
"I learned so many things from him. In practice and in games he taught me so many things."
Although he's slated to start the season in Grand Rapids, Athanasiou is heading to Traverse City – where the prospects tournament begins today and site of training camp next week – with every intention of doing what it takes to open the season in Detroit.
Of course, every top prospect has that same mindset.
"I'm going to do my best to try and make that team (and) if they put me back in Grand Rapids I'll be happy with that," said Athanasiou, 21. "I'm just going to keep making my push to try and get one step closer to making that team.
"First year in the AHL was a learning experience, I was fortunate enough to have a season that I was happy with and do as well as I could."
That wasn't easy.
Athanasiou's rookie pro season was derailed by a broken jaw in December that he struggled for months to overcome.
He got hit in the corner in Oklahoma City by the Barons' Mitch Moroz – who received a charging major – but he thinks it was a sucker punch delivered after the hit that caused the injury.
Athanasiou had seven goals and nine assists in 25 games when he suffered the injury, which sidelined him eight weeks. When he finally returned in February, Athanasiou was literally a shell of his former self physically.
"It's such a touch injury to have," said the 6-foot-2 Athanasiou, who started the season at 195 pounds. "I lost like 25 pounds in that six weeks I was wired shut. It was definitely tough coming back and playing at that weight, but I thought I handled it well and made the most of it.
"Came back, got up to 183 pounds then I got the flu so I lost another 14 pounds and went right back down. It was a tough thing to go through. I think I made the most of what it was and did the best I could."
Now, all of that is finally in the past and Athanasiou is eager to resume his quest to earn a spot in the Red Wings lineup.
He's one of the organization's most promising prospects with blistering speed, slick moves and a nose for the net.
After scoring 49 goals among 95 points during his final junior season with the OHL's Barrie Colts in 2012-13, Athanasiou had 16 goals and 16 assists in 55 games for the Griffins. In the playoffs, he added five more goals among nine points in 16 games.
The biggest growth he saw as a rookie might have been at the other end of the ice, which wasn't his focus in junior hockey.
"I think I'm learning defensively," Athanasiou said. "I had a great 200-foot game last year. I very rarely get beat back to my own net. I feel I can always get between my man and the net which is a big thing. I can use my quickness to my advantage to break the puck out of the D-zone.
"I think I've become a defensively sound player. It was a big step in the AHL. Coach Blashill helped me with that. My 200-foot game was quite good last year."