Andreas Athanasiou’s blazing speed will help Blackhawks — if he stays healthy

When Andreas Athanasiou was healthy and in the lineup for the Kings in 2021-22, he was quite good.

The Blackhawks hope Athanasiou will be as good for them in 2022-23, just healthier –a lot healthier.

“It’s going to be trial and error just to see where [he] fits the best, but definitely that speed is going to have to be used for us,” coach Luke Richardson said Saturday.

Last year, Athanasiou produced at a prorated 50-point pace –and scored at a prorated 32-goal pace. His analytics were equally excellent: he had a 53.8% expected-goals ratio and 50.6% scoring-chance ratio at even strength. The Kings dominated whenever he was in the lineup, too, playing at an absurd 129-point pace.

But unfortunately, he simply couldn’t stay healthy for long. He broke his finger in the fall. Then he came down with COVID. Then he suffered multiple groin injuries.

He ultimately appeared in only 28 games over five different stints of action. As a result, his 11 goals and 17 points and the Kings’ 19-3-6 record with him dressed hardly made a ripple around the NHL.

“Every time I’d come back, I’d be playing real well, and then I would have to get sidelined,” Athanasiou said. “Obviously, it sucks. You want to be in there, playing with your teammates, and [that’s] just the way it went last year. There’s not much you can do about it. You just have to work through it, really.”

Inconsistency, whether due to injuries or fluctuating performance, has been his Achilles heel for years.

After breaking out with 30 goals and 54 points for the Red Wings in 2018-19, Athanasiou — who has Greek and Guyanese heritage but grew up in Canada — hasn’t tallied more than 26 points in any of the three seasons since, bouncing from Detroit to Edmonton to Los Angeles to Chicago along the way.

But he just turned 28, so there’s plenty of tread left in his tires. And boy, those tires can roll.

Long known as one of the fastest skaters in the league, Athanasiou has seemed to have difficulty not passing the guys in front of him during the Hawks’ post-practice conditioning skates this week.

“He’s definitely got speed,” Richardson said. “I’ve seen that many times before. Coaching against him (with the Canadiens), I was always bringing his name up….especially [when] runningthe defense, watching out for his speed. And sure enough, he’d always get two breakaways a game. So that’s what we’re looking for from him. We’re looking to use his speed. That’s what this team needs, and that’s the way the game is played now.”

Added Athanasiou: “I’ve always been a guy who has been able to get opportunities, so I’m not really worried about the producing [points aspect] too much. I know I’m going to get my chances. I’ve just got to bear down and make a good play, the right play.”

The one-year, $3 million contract he signed with the Hawks in July –a “no-brainer” decision, he said –sets him up to be traded to a playoff contender at the deadline, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent again next summer.

In the meantime, the 2022-23 Hawks should offer him an excellent opportunity to rejuvenate his career. Top-six minutes, a power-play role and heavy overtime usage will all be readily available. Plus, he’s fully healthy now.

Richardson has early designs on trying him out on a line with Sam Lafferty, another excellent skater. Richardson theorized Saturday that such a combination could help the Hawks defend the top lines of high-paced teams like the Avalanche, Maple Leafs and Oilers.

“Everybody wants to play, so whenever you get your opportunity, just go out there and make the most of [it],” Athanasiou said.

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