Andreas Athanasiou’s late-season surge with Blackhawks sets him up nicely for free agency

Athanasiou finished the season on a tear after moving to center. He will get a bigger contract as a pending UFA again this summer — and that raise could come with the Hawks, who will need to spend money.

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Andreas Athanasiou takes a shot.

Andreas Athanasiou produced 20 goals and 20 assists for the Blackhawks this past season.

AP Photo/Nick Wass

Andreas Athanasiou’s 20 goals for the Blackhawks this past season tied him for seventh among all pending unrestricted free-agent forwards around the NHL.

That’s an ugly reflection of the 2023 free agency class, which is the weakest in a while. In fact, not a single pending UFA forward scored more than 27 goals. (Tampa’s Alex Killorn, Pittsburgh’s Jason Zucker and Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, who isn’t going anywhere all tied for that mark.)

But that’s also a favorable reflection of Athanasiou’s individual season. The 28-year-old Ontario native finished with 40 points — 20 goals and 20 assists — in a career-high 81 games.

He finally stayed healthy after years of injury woes. And production-wise, he enjoyed the second-best season of his career, falling short of only his 2018-19 eruption with the Red Wings.

Hawks coach Luke Richardson’s decision to move him from wing to center for the last 11 games of the season — starting March 25 against the Wild — looks brilliant in retrospect. Athanasiou hadn’t played center since his Wings tenure, but he transitioned seamlessly.

That change sparked a surge that singlehandedly damaged the Hawks’ draft-lottery odds but nonetheless improved his season performance from “met expectations” to “exceeded expectations.”

Over those final 11 games, he looked like a bonafide first-line star and clearly the best player left on the team. He racked up 13 points — six goals and seven assists. He recorded 3.7 shots on goal per game, up from 1.9 previously. His five-on-five scoring-chance ratio leapt to 51.5%, up from 39.9% previously.

“[Playing center requires] way more skating, which works in my favor, being able to come under the puck with speed and not be locked in one spot on the ice,” Athanasiou said April 11.

Richardson echoed that sentiment while offering an honest assessment of Athanasiou’s strengths and weaknesses.

“He had a pretty good start [to the season], and then he had some times where he got hard on himself...and a little bit down,” Richardson said. “It affects his skating. He’s thinking a little bit too much instead of just playing. But playing center helps that. It keeps him moving. It keeps him thinking out there about what his responsibility is, not about the chance he just missed.

“For him, [it’s important to] be a little bit stronger on the puck. Does that create offense? Maybe not always. But it creates more offensive zone time, and the other team doesn’t have the puck as much. He has been more conscious of that. Instead of trying to stickhandle through all five guys, he’s using his speed wide, turning back up and making some plays.”

Athanasiou also demonstrated his quick learning skills in the faceoff dot. He lost all eight draws in his center debut in Minnesota, but after just a week of receiving tips from Jonathan Toews and coach Yanic Perreault, he improved tremendously. He won 67.2% of his faceoffs over the last four games.

All of these positive trends — combined with the slim pickings around the market — set up Athanasiou nicely this summer. He will warrant a significant raise over the one-year, $3 million contract he signed in 2022.

Will that raise come with the Hawks? It appears very possible. Richardson seemed to think so, at least.

“Maybe next year, [center is] a spot that he can fit here,” he said. “That’ll be up to management and his [agent] to see where his opportunities are. Hopefully he likes it enough [here] and knows we trust him.”

Athanasiou said April 11 he hadn’t held any contract talks yet with the Hawks, but he mentioned several times throughout the season that he, too, would like to come back — presumably providing his financial demands are met.

And the Hawks have little reason not to meet them. They actually need to, one way or another, spend quite a bit of money this summer — roughly $20 million or more — simply to hit the salary-cap floor.

Re-signing Athanasiou and/or Max Domi (although the Stars will get the first opportunity to re-sign Domi) would be logical and comfortable ways to make progress there.

Bringing one or both of those guys back would also provide veteran offensive support for the prospects who will graduate onto the NHL roster next season. The Hawks loved everything Domi did — on- and off-ice — during his brief stint, and Athanasiou’s world-class speed aligns with general manager Kyle Davidson’s preferred style.

This isn’t to say Athanasiou is guaranteed to return. Davidson has the flexibility to take this offseason in many different directions, while Athanasiou could be lured by a winning team offering an equally large payday. But he certainly played well enough this season, particularly down the stretch, to justify an extension.

Other free agents

Besides Athanasiou, the Hawks’ other notable pending UFAs are Toews, Jujhar Khaira, Buddy Robinson, Andreas Englund and Alex Stalock.

The notable pending restricted free agents are Philipp Kurashev, Joey Anderson, Anders Bjork, Austin Wagner, Caleb Jones, Ian Mitchell, Alec Regula, Jakub Galvas and Arvid Soderblom.

Kurashev and Soderblom will certainly be re-signed. Anderson, Bjork and Regula seem more likely than not to be re-signed. The Hawks’ decisions on Khaira and Jones could go either way, making them two of the most interesting cases.

Khaira — who, like Athanasiou, played his best hockey as a Hawk over the season’s final month — sounded uncertain about his future during his exit interview.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on here with the roster, so I’ll let my agent deal with that,” Khaira said. “But whatever happens, [I’ve] always been super thankful to these guys and grateful for the opportunity. I would be happy to come back. If not, I wish everyone the best.”

Jones sounded more confident, but his fate could depend on how many defensive spots Davidson wants to leave open for prospects — as well as if he buys out Nikita Zaitsev.

“I don’t think I’m going to stress on it too much,” Jones said. “If I come back, I’ll be excited. Hopefully I would get the opportunity to play with Seth [Jones] again. We would see how that would shake out.”

Alex Stalock (as well as Toews, of course) headlines the sizable group of free agents unlikely to be re-signed.

With Petr Mrazek under contract for another year and Soderblom ready to become a full-time NHL goalie, Stalock will probably be a victim of numbers in spite of his stellar, heartwarming season. The 35-year-old veteran seemed to have accepted that reality in his exit interview.

“There’s a time when younger is better than older,” Stalock said. “It’s the way this game works. We’ll see what happens this summer, but obviously [we’ll] keep discussions open. My time here was incredible.”

Stalock learned this season he still has the “passion and fire” to continue his hockey career, but it sounds like his family’s wishes will play a major role in his summer decision about whether and where to sign.

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