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Speedy Athanasiou gets chance on top line

Only Nyquist-Helm-Vanek remain the same; defense pairs changed also

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

SUNRISE, FLA. - Andreas Athanasiou is getting a chance.

The Red Wings practiced Friday at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, and Athanasiou was skating on a line with Frans Nielsen and captain Henrik Zetterberg.

Tomas Tatar shifted to a line with Dylan Larkin and Riley Sheahan while Justin Abdelkader skated with Luke Glendening and Drew Miller.

The only forward line remaining intact was Darren Helm centering Gustav Nyquist and Thomas Vanek.

"Without totally changing things we want to keep tinkering a little bit in trying just to find the best combinations," Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. "We think we've got good depth up front. We want four forward lines to be able to score, so let's tinker as we need to tinker to try to get the most out of every line. Obviously, the Helm line has been real good so far in exhibition and last night but we want to make sure we maximize every line."

Athanasiou could play a role similar to the one Larkin played last season with Zetterberg.

"What I'd like in that spot is speed on the forecheck, just give that line a little bit more jump that way and he obviously brings lots of speed and can get in on the forecheck and create turnovers," Blashill said.

Playing on that line could offer Athanasiou an opportunity to play significant minutes, more than he's played before.

"Those guys play big minutes, so to be a part of it would be a lot of fun," Athanasiou said. "I think my speed would complement their game and kind of give them a little more time and space and open up some ice for them."

In limited ice time last season, Athanasiou scored nine goals and five assists in 37 games.

Both Nielsen and Zetterberg are responsible, two-way players, which can help a younger player.

"Getting a chance to play with those guys, you can learn a lot from them and maybe we can generate a lot of offense and they're good two-way players, so if we can take care of our D-zone we'll be fine offensively," Athanasiou said. "We had some good chem(istry) today in practice and I think it'll follow through into the game tomorrow."

The changes mean that Steve Ott is the odd man out for Saturday's game against the Florida Panthers.

"I thought Otter played fine," Blashill said. "He wasn't as good as he was in exhibition. Otter is someone I think is going to have a big impact on our year through the course of the year at different times. It doesn't mean he's going to play 82 games. So we bring Abdelkader in that spot. He brings some accountability defensively. I think they can really grind teams. I think they can get in on the forecheck and spend time in the O-zone. That can be a line that can go up against anybody's best."

DEFENSE CHANGES: Blashill is also changing things on defense.

In practice Friday Danny DeKeyser played wit Mike Green and Brendan Smith was paired with Alexey Marchenko.

"Again, just trying to find the right mix," Blashill said. "We weren't good enough. It's funny, we did some good things as a group but then we just absolutely shot ourselves in the foot. Regardless of what the pairings are, regardless as a team, we can't shoot ourselves in the foot. I thought the D group did that by letting guys in behind us way too much and I thought the whole team did by the too many men penalties. We got to make sure we take care of that. I'm trying to tinker enough to find the right chemistry."

The pair of Jonathan Ericsson and Xavier Ouellet remained the same.

KRONWALL UPDATE: Niklas Kronwall has been practicing but is not yet ready to play.

Kronwall skated Thursday and Friday but Blashill said he won't play Saturday.

'I think it's a day by day thing with him," Blashill said. "We still got to get him to where he's going full in practice before we're confident in (him playing)."

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