With the free-agent market all but closed (unless you’re Jaromir Jagr), the NHL has moved on to tryout season ahead of team training camps.
Montreal, despite an incredibly busy off-season, has yet to fully sort out their situation at centre. Claude Julien has mentioned that a spot in the top six is open, and that both Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin will get a chance to play down the middle.
However, if the Canadiens feel that Galchenyuk is best suited at wing, and want to utilize Drouin to his peak effectiveness, there is a route they can go to still land a young centre.
Alexander Wennberg is an intriguing possibility, but with the cap space possessed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, an offer sheet for him would likely be matched.
The other option is Andreas Athanasiou of the Detroit Red Wings, who is currently involved in a tense contract situation with his club. The 23-year-old forward is mulling over KHL options in case a deal cannot be worked out with Detroit, and this could well play into Montreal’s hands.
Detroit currently faces a cap overage of $3 million, meaning that matching any offer sheet puts them further in a financial bind, and would force them to move other assets. Montreal currently sits on $8.4 million in cap space; more than enough to put in an offer that Detroit cannot answer, while still having plenty of cap space left over.
After reaching out to our friends over at Winging It in Motown, the feeling is that any contract around $2.5 million would be a fair value for Athanasiou, but that Ken Holland will likely attempt to match anything from $3 million dollars or less.
With Habs’ cap excess, Marc Bergevin can easily afford to submit a contract in that range, while retaining the ability to make another move before the season and keeping some money in his pocket for in-season moves. For that cost, Montreal would need to part with only their assigned second-round pick, and in return they’d receive a 23-year-old, NHL-ready player; a pittance to pay.
What exactly does Athanasiou bring to the table as a player?
His greatest asset, above all else, is that he is ridiculously fast. While not quite Connor McDavid, his straight-line speed is nothing to sneeze at. In terms of raw skill, he’s got plenty of that, and when combined with his speed he becomes a nuisance for opposing defences to handle.
What’s more, he has the versatility to play down the middle, or he can be another goal-scoring option on an extremely loaded wing group.
Athanasiou is not without his flaws, however. In fact his playing style might clash with what head coach Claude Julien expects of his players. It’s been pointed out that while he is aggressive when he has the puck, his back-checking and defensive-zone coverage could stand to be improved drastically.
It’s very clear that Athanasiou is out there to do one thing, and that is score goals. He has produced roughly 1.8 even strength points per 60 minutes, while playing around 13 minutes a night. For reference, Max Pacioretty — a repeat 30-goal-scorer — produces 2.0 ES points per hour, so it’s not exactly bad territory to be in.
To cover for his deficiencies on the defensive side of the puck it would be wise to line him up either with a solid two-way winger such as a Paul Byron or Artturi Lehkonen. Or if the Habs do want him at centre, they could shift Tomas Plekanec to wing to help mentor Athanasiou in defensive-zone play, while giving the Czech’s line a potent offensive threat.
There is also the crazy idea of putting Athanasiou on a line with both Drouin and Galchenyuk, giving them two highly-skilled playmakers, and a burner of a winger who is a pure goal-scorer. For this line to work, they would need to be deployed nearly exclusively in the offensive zone, but they would be able to convert chances on a regular basis.
After seeing some top offensive talent leave in the off-season, making a gutsy play like an offer sheet would do well to replace some of the assets who left with no return coming back. Athanasiou by himself isn’t Alexander Radulov, but by pairing him with someone like Drouin, and doing it at what is likely to be a reasonable asking price, would addresses some of that loss.
It would be a major play for Bergevin to snag the budding offensive star from Detroit, and at the low cost of what is likely to just be a second-round pick. The worst-case scenario is that Ken Holland matches the contract offer, and Montreal doesn’t get their shiny new toy.
Unless Bergevin has something even more massive in store (which is entirely possible given his remaining funds), making a move to further boost his team’s offensive abilities for a low cost isn’t the worst idea.