Blackhawks’ Andreas Athanasiou improving defensively after early-season struggles

VANCOUVER, B.C. — A few weeks ago, Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson met with forward Andreas Athanasiou, as he does with all players from time to time.

Richardson showed Athanasiou some video clips in which he could’ve put in more defensive effort. The same clips then reappeared in the team video session later that morning, so Richardson was “sure he got the message” after seeing them twice.

“It’s not that he was cheating on [the plays], but he was looking to out-think the other team,” Richardson said. “[I told him], ‘Play our system, trust it and we’ll kill that play and get the puck back to you. And then everybody knows what everybody’s doing.’ That was just a reminder to him and every player.”

Athanasiou seemingly took that lesson to heart. In fact, he seemingly has been improving defensively for a while now, although the bar was low beforehand.

In Athanasiou’s first 26 games this season — from Oct. 12 through Dec. 9 — he was as weak defensively as advertised when he arrived in Chicago. Opponents generated 69.1 shot attempts and 35.9 scoring chances per 60 minutes during Athanasiou’s five-on-five ice time. Those were the highest and third-highest rates, respectively, allowed by Hawks forwards.

After a brief absence because of a family funeral, though, Athanasiou returned Dec. 15 against the Golden Knights and began a stretch of much-improved play. From then through Saturday’s win against the Blues, opponents averaged just 54.5 shot attempts and 24.8 scoring chances during Athanasiou’s ice time — the fifth- and fourth-lowest rates, respectively, allowed by Hawks forwards.

“If you’re not improving, something is going wrong,” Athanasiou said. “Everyone comes in every day and tries to get better at something, whether it’s a little thing or an adjustment on the ice. It’s a continuous learning game.

“[I’m working on] all aspects of the game. My game being speed, obviously I can use it on offense, but there are a lot of times I can use it on defense to take away time and space. On the backcheck and in the ‘D’ zone, [I can use it for] getting my stick on pucks.”

Saturday specifically represented perhaps Athanasiou’s best defensive performance as a Hawk. The Blues generated only six shot attempts, three scoring chances and zero goals during his 11:21 of five-on-five ice time. Richardson shouted him out, unprompted, after the game.

“Athanasiou was excellent,” he said. “He’s known for his offensive speed and breakaways, but he was consciously using that speed [when] back-checking, staying above his checks. He had a couple good sticks in the ‘D’-zone at the end, when they had the goalie pulled, because of his speed. And he closes quickly [on opponents]. . . . We’d like to see it even more.”

Athanasiou’s defensive statistics in Sunday’s loss to the Kings weren’t as flattering, but he still caught Richardson’s eye with strong stick play during the game-ending empty-net sequence, winning a puck battle to gain possession in the offensive zone.

That game-to-game disparity hinted at another underlying trend: His linemates might be a major factor affecting his stats.

Athanasiou spent most of January alongside Jason Dickinson and Sam Lafferty, two of the Hawks’ best defensive forwards. Lafferty, in particular, is the only other Hawk whose speed can complement Athanasiou, who has tallied 10 goals and five assists this season.

In the wake of Tyler Johnson’s injury Sunday, however, Athanasiou moved back up next to Max Domi and Patrick Kane, the role in which he spent most of the fall — and the role he retained Tuesday against the Canucks, in which his defensive metrics were again subpar.

His scoring-chance ratio with Kane this season is 35.9%, compared to 48.7% with Lafferty, so this realignment might test the fortitude of his defensive improvement. If it holds up, though, it’ll be even more impressive.

“[He’s] just more conscious about it, I think is what it is, because anybody can play defense if you want to,” Richardson said. “He’s seeing that he can add that to his game and it’s not taking away from his offense.”

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