Latest posts by Mike Valvano (see all)
- J.T. Miller: Requiem for a Captain Who Never Was - 02/28/2018
- As Sellers, Rangers Must be Patient and Embrace the Rebuild - 02/07/2018
- An Alternative, Youthful, Trade Deadline Approach - 01/25/2018
Since Artem Anisimov was traded, the New York Rangers have had an alliterative alphabetical hole at the top of their lineup. Now, with Andreas Athanasiou’s contract with the Red Wings in limbo and rumors swirling that he’s headed to the KHL, the idea of signing him to an offer sheet and sending a pick to Detroit is being kicked around. However, whether or not Rangers GM Jeff Gorton should pursue him is debatable, despite Athanasiou’s upside.
As a player, there’s no doubt as to whether or not he’d fit the Rangers system. As Cleared for Contact’s own Phil Kocher writes:
Athanasiou is a unique player in a unique position. His team is so cap-pressed they’re forced to play contract chicken with a valuable young player who under less dire circumstances would have been signed by now.
But I emphasize unique here. Athanasiou has blazing speed and the hands to match it. That combination has proven to be a valuable combination in today’s NHL that has put a premium on both. A 37-year old Patrick Marleau was able to negotiate a three-year contract in free agency this summer for maintaining exactly those two elements to his game where most of his peers have long since retired by that age for lacking them.
At the age of 23, Athanasiou had 18 goals in 64 games last season while averaging just 13:27 TOI/G. He accomplished this with a 15% shooting percentage on 120 shots. By comparison, Mika Zibanejad scored 14 goals on 119 shots (11.8% shooting percentage) while averaging 17:04 for the Rangers. What this suggests is a fairly high accuracy rate for Athanasiou given he really doesn’t take a large volume of shots. What he lacks in other areas of the game—playmaking, defensive ability, and perhaps overall work ethic—can be strongly counterbalanced by a strong scoring punch and quick feet. Both of which should fit seamlessly into this Rangers’ roster and system under Alain Vigneault that emphasizes both.
Phil is right in that Athanasiou’s skating and scoring abilities make him a prime candidate for success in Vigneault’s scheme. Even if there are questions about his compete level, as Detroit coach Jeff Blashill mentioned last year, Athanasiou has the upside to make him worth an investment for most teams.
For the Rangers, a club with strong scoring depth, the short-term projections make it difficult to justify the cost to acquire him. While Athanasiou’s inconsistent play makes it difficult to project a contract, Jeff Gorton would probably have to pay ~$2 million per year and send a second- or third-round draft pick to the Wings. With a clear top-nine vacancy, this would make a lot of sense. But, as constructed, there is no current hole to fill on the wing.
Assuming everyone is healthy, New York’s top-nine wingers project to be Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, J.T. Miller, and Jimmy Vesey with Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast anchoring a high-upside fourth line, regardless of who plays center. So, quite simply, where does Athanasiou fit? Or better yet, who does he replace? That’s the rub in signing a guy who needs a top-nine role to succeed.
This isn’t a squad that lacked offensive punch last year. The Rangers ranked fourth in goal scoring, and with players like Vesey and Buchnevich figuring to see a jump in production, the Rangers aren’t likely to see their production drop much. As such, it’s difficult to justify bumping any of the aforementioned wingers out of the lineup for a player who projects to provide more offense, especially given his inconsistencies elsewhere on the ice.
Last season, Athanasiou was deployed purely as an offensive player; he’s similar to Buchnevich in that his skillset is wasted a bit if he’s deployed in a checking role. To his credit, he capitalized on his opportunities and turned a 62.1% Offensive Zone Start percentage (oZS) into 25 even-strength points while averaging just 13:28 per game. Because of that, bringing him down from the press box when a top-nine winger gets injured means the offense shouldn’t slow down. But even with the favorable deployment rate last season, he had poor possession numbers (48.1% Corsi For and 48.4% Fenwick For) which likely eliminates him from a consistent fourth-line role.
Having Athanasiou as a top-nine depth player is appealing for when injuries inevitably happen, but, that’s an expensive luxury. In the salary cap era, teams need to get more than a part-time player for $2 million against the cap and a high draft pick. Perhaps Gorton and Vigneault could see a long-term future for Athanasiou, especially with Nash and Grabner coming off the books next year, but asking him to fill one of those roles seems a stretch.
The best way for the Rangers to make an Athanasiou acquisition worthwhile, given the cost, is trading away a different winger (probably to get another center). Should, say, a J.T. Miller for Matt Duchene trade metastasize, then the offer sheet is almost a no-brainer. But there’s been nothing to suggest that the Blueshirts are going to make that kind of move so it seems a long shot.
To reiterate, there’s no doubt about the fact that Athanasiou, as a player, could be productive and provide some extra juice to the lineup in Vigneault’s system. His skillset gives him tremendous upside as a depth piece. But, for now, the cost, which includes bumping a strong