In part because they haven’t had high draft picks and in part because they almost always do things the right way, the Detroit Red Wings have had a clear plan for developing the players they’ve drafted. They get out of junior or college or Europe, go to the minors, maybe win a championship and learn what it’s like to be a pro. Then by the time they’re ready to play in Detroit, they’re really prepared for the NHL.
But there is one player who just might buck that time-honored tradition. His name is Anthony Mantha and if you have even a passing interest in junior hockey, you’re probably already heard of him. Going into the first game of the Memorial Cup tonight with the Val d’Or Foreurs, the 19-year-old right winger has scored 57 goals in 57 regular season games and 24 goals in 24 playoff games. He has back-to-back 50-goal seasons in the Quebec League and led all Canadian scorers at the World Junior Championship with 5-6-11 totals in seven games. He was the only Canadian named to the all-tournament team. He was ranked the 10th-best prospect outside the NHL in THN's annual Future Watch edition.
Here's a small sampling of his offensive prowess:
And, oh yeah, he’s 6-foot-5. Which means, depending on how he does in training camp and the early part of the season, the Red Wings might be willing to eschew their traditional development path to the NHL.
“I mean you have to (give him a chance),” said Red Wings GM Ken Holland. “Yeah, we’re going to give him a real chance in camp. I think we’d be pretty stupid if we just gave him two exhibition games and then sent him to Grand Rapids.”
Here’s an indication of how excited the Red Wings are about Mantha. After they were eliminated from the playoffs, they dispatched coach Mike Babcock to two games of the QMJHL final to watch Mantha play. You don’t do that with a player you plan on putting in the minors the next season. Mantha obviously impressed Babcock with his offensive prowess, scoring his 19th and 20th goals of the post-season in Game 3 of the league final and his 21st and 22nd in Game 4.
Red Wing prospects don’t generally make the jump to the NHL, but Mantha is obviously no run-of-the-mill prospect. Babcock could see that himself, even though he acknowledges that Mantha takes two minute shifts and is playing against players who are 180 pounds, not 225.
“He has a different skill set than any (young) player we’ve had here in the nine years I’ve been here,” Babcock said. “I’ve never seen a player like this in all the time I’ve been here. I used to coach in junior and I used to think they were all going to play in the NHL. Now that I’m here, I don’t think any of them are going to play. But I think this guy is going to play.”
Mantha is not only another in a long line of impressive Detroit prospects, he represents yet another brilliant move by Holland and his staff. At the 2013, the Red Wings were slotted to pick 18th overall, but moved down two spots with the San Jose Sharks so the Sharks could pick the player they coveted, defenseman Mirco Mueller, a terrific prospect in his own right. In exchange for moving down, the Red Wings also received the 58th overall pick in the draft, which they used to take Tyler Bertuzzi of the Guelph Storm, who will also be playing in the Memorial Cup.
With the Red Wings American League team churning out NHL-caliber players who, it could be argued, saved the Red Wings season after major injuries to Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, Mantha will have his share of competition in camp.
“We have all kinds of kids coming and I don’t mean in three years, I mean now,” Babcock said. “And if we get Datsyuk and Zetterberg back healthy, we have the chance to be a legitimate hockey club again.”
Whether or not Mantha is a part of that will be up to him, but he’s earned every chance to do it with his play this season.