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What to do with unrestricted free agent Andreas Athanasiou?

The Blackhawks signed Andreas Athanasiou to a one-year, $3 million contract last summer during free agency, with the apparent plan of flipping him at the 2023 trade deadline for picks and/or prospects. Said deadline came and went with Athanasiou still in Chicago, possibly indicative of the lack of market demand for his services. With unrestricted free agency now looming for Athansiou, what should the Blackhawks do about this veteran forward?

Let’s start by revisiting what Athanasiou accomplished last season in Chicago while appearing in a career-high 81 games. He finished with an even 20-20-40: 20 goals and 20 assists for 40 points, finishing as the leading scorer on the team behind the departed Max Domi and Patrick Kane – which should make for one hell of a trivia question in a decade. It was the second best season of Athanasiou’s career in just about every relevant category, trailing his 2018-19 season in the Motor City when Athanasiou had 54 points (30 G, 24 A) in 76 games. And he did all of that despite finishing eighth among Blackhawks forwards with an average ice time of 16:00.

Unlike Taylor Raddysh, though, Athanasiou’s numbers were not necessarily propped up by more time on the power play than Athanasiou would be expected to have in future seasons.

Lessons learned from Taylor Raddysh’s first full NHL season
What we learned from the first long look at the 2022 trade acquisition.

He had just three power-play goals and four power-play assists, leaving 33 of Athanasiou’s 40 points from last season at even strength. Among the 15 Blackhawks forwards who skated at least 300 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time last season, Athanasiou was fourth with a rate of 1.49 points per 60 minutes, trailing Domi, Kane and Lukas Reichel. There was no shooting percentage spike, either: Athanasiou was at 11.4 percent last season, just below his career mark of 12.3.

Like many of his teammates, Athanasiou’s possession numbers are “fine” – not necessarily good but also indicative of the team’s collective misery in those categories. Using the same 15-forward sample as above, Athanasiou was seventh in shot attempt share (44.35), eighth in expected goal share (42.64), ninth in scoring chance share (41.40) and fifth in high-danger chance share (42.96). Hovering around the middle of the pack isn’t bad for the third-line role Athanasiou would maintain on a better team but it’s also indicative of the playing styles of his top linemates in Kane and Domi, who were typically good on the rush but not really anywhere else.

Looking at some of the micro stats from All Three Zones offers further support to playing on the rush being Athanasiou’s preferred brand of hockey, which makes sense given his incredible wheels. The most obvious strength of Athanasiou’s micro stats focus on zone entries, where his speed prevents defenders from challenging him at the blue line:

Two of the worst areas from that data are cycle/forecheck offense and recovering pucks that were dumped into the zone. Adding up the positives and negatives results in a player who’s good at using his speed to gain entry into the offensive zone with possession and quickly setting up a scoring chance – and that’s about it. Sometimes that can result in impressive goals, like this one from October against the Minnesota Wild:

But it doesn’t always lead to sustained success, either. Athanasiou ended the season on a bit of a heater, with 12 points (6 G, 6 A) in the final eight games. But he also had 12 points (4 G, 8 a) in the 25 games prior to that. Stretches like that are why Athanasiou has always seemed like more of a third-liner than a legitimate top-six guy, as he doesn’t have as diverse of an offensive skill set as other higher-tiered NHL forwards. Athanasiou can beat opponents off the rush with this speed but not too much else.

Still, there’s a worthwhile NHL player here and it wouldn’t be the worst choice in the world to bring him back for another season in Chicago. His long-term future won’t be with this franchise – Athanasiou turns 29 in August – so it’s possible that he will seek more term elsewhere than what the Blackhawks would offer. If not, though, Chicago could easily afford to pay him $4 or $5 million for another season with the intention of retaining half of that salary at the 2024 deadline to entice potential buyers next spring. The salary cap ceiling is barely in sight anymore for the Blackhawks, so overpaying for a season of Athanasiou comes with zero risk, and it’s not like there’s a plethora of forward prospects on their way to Chicago next season.

But if the Blackhawks elected to let Athanasiou walk in free agency, it wouldn’t be too difficult to find another forward on the free-agent market who could eat up ice time in a similar manner.

It would significantly decrease the number of “Greece Lightning” tweets, though.