On Friday night’s victory over the New York Rangers, Andreas Athanasiou snapped a sixteen game goal-less drought in what was the most dominant performance of his career. What was different about this game was that AA was moved off the 4th line center role he’s been occupying to the 2nd line right wing spot (due to Anthony Mantha being out with injury). Against the Rangers, he generated 6 shots on goal, one of which found the back of the net, from a highlight reel flip pass from Dylan Larkin. It was a memorable night for the London, Ontario native, as every shift he showed why he belongs on the wing.
Earlier in the season, following his prolonged contract negotiation, AA stepped right into the lineup and made an immediate impact playing on Larkin’s wing. Jeff Blashill, in an attempt to ride off his hot start, moved him to center in sheltered minutes to help make a transition back to AA’s natural position.
“He is one of those players when he gets the puck, he really skates. Some wingers learn to skate without the puck. He hasn’t learned that as well. He’s a guy who really wants to get going once he gets the puck. It’s almost impossible (to do that) on the wing.” Blashill said to MLive.
Blashill has the right idea, but at the end of the day, you need more than skill and speed to play center in the NHL. Larkin, for example, has found incredible success in his move to center with his high hockey IQ in all three zones. His understanding of where the puck is and becoming more of a play-maker now, creates more dimension and more control in his game. AA is dangerous in the sense that he can take over a game in the offensive zone, but since moving to center, we haven’t seen much control in the neutral zone. And yet, despite finding difficulties in these new areas, his offensive play has taken a hit because he still has to commit to more responsibilities.
Looking at the nine game stretch where he served as the 4th line center, his 34.62% faceoff percentage easily ranks last on the team (at least 20 faceoffs taken). The season as a whole, he has shown he’s unable to make players better; a trait you look for in centers. Looking at the chart below, we see the only players who are able to thrive with AA are Larkin and Anthony Mantha (in which Larkin was the primary center).
It’s hard to argue him being more suited at center when he hasn’t been finding much success, especially compared to when he plays the wing. During the 2016-17 season (when he played primarily on the wing) he ranked 5th on the team in P/60 (1.95). All while having a CF% of 47.51 (also 2016-17), showing he’s unable to drive the play.
Ultimately, his speed is more effective on the wing. “It’s tough for the defensemen to do anything when he comes with that speed, so it’s good to see.” said captain Henrik Zetterberg. And his thrilling performance on Friday was just another indication of him being better off on the wing.