It was a bit of a shock to start the season. The Detroit Red Wings looked ready to inject youth into the lineup, surround an aging core with as many fresh faces as possible and attempt an in-house rebuild that would start the next wave of success in the Motor City. Some of the pieces were already in place with Dylan Larkin set to build on a good rookie season, Andreas Athanasiou looking at an increased role and Petr Mrazek tabbed as the goaltender of the future.
So, conspicuous by his absence on opening night was Anthony Mantha.
Mantha’s pre-season performance had been solid, his three goals in five games having some believing he was a virtual lock to make the opening night lineup. The issue would be finding a spot for the 22-year-old, but it was hard to imagine the Red Wings wouldn’t manage to find some way to make that a reality. Yet, here he was, two days before the first game of the season, demoted to the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins to start the campaign.
But Mantha responded. In his first four games with the Griffins, Mantha scored not once, not twice, but six times. He had a hat trick in his third game and Mantha had potted eight goals and 10 points by his 10th. Two days after he had hit a double-digit point total in the AHL, he was called up by the Red Wings. And now there’s no chance he’s going back down. The question is, though, what has changed in order to not just get him to this level, but for him to stay in Detroit?
According to Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, one of the biggest improvements for Mantha has been his strength. Blashill, who coached Mantha during his rookie season in the AHL, said he got in touch with Mantha ahead of the season, telling him the Red Wings would be a better team if he made the roster. For that to be a reality, Mantha would require some time in the gym, adding to his 6-foot-5 frame and increasing his ability to use his size to be harder for defensemen to handle.
“He went to work this summer and added a lot of muscle to his frame,” Blashill said. “He made the decision this summer he wanted to be an NHL player, 100 percent this year.”
It’s become clear how impactful Mantha can be with his size, too. There’s no shortage of examples of how he can use his strength, either. Looking through his highlight reel, you’ll see him win puck battles, force his way into space and power his way to rebounds. It wasn’t just about tacking on pounds of muscle, however.
“Because of how good he was, he could play the game standing still and still have lots of success, not necessarily having to move his feet all the time before he came into pro hockey,” Blashill explained. “That’s because he had a skill package that’s a lot better than the people he was playing against.”
At every other level, his style of play worked wonders. He led the QMJHL in goals in 2012-13 as a sophomore player, then topped that feat with a monster 57-goal, 120-point season that led him to QMJHL MVP and CHL Player of the Year honors. In the AHL, he continued to be dominant, even as a young gun. He opened with a 15-goal, 33-point rookie season and scored 20 goals and 45 points in his second season. But for Mantha to become a consistent NHL scorer, he needed all aspects of his game working at once. That’s where Mantha’s dedication to using his skating ability in unison with his offensive gifts has really helped.
“When he skates, he’s an elite player,” Blashill said. “He’s a big body with really good hands and really good offensive sense. When he skates with the puck, he’s hard to handle, hard to handle on rushes, he’s hard to handle in the offensive zone. He’s got an excellent shot. So he really creates a lot of space for himself.”
How has that paid off? Well, for staters, since coming up to the Red Wings, Mantha has 12 goals, the second-best mark on the club. Two have been game winners, one has come on the power play, he's blasted pucks home and he's worked his way to the net for those hard-nosed goals that coaches love. Not only is he filling the net, but his 26 points put him fourth on the team in scoring. This despite the fact he’s played at least a dozen games less than each of Detroit’s top three point-getters.
The skating ability has also paid dividends on the defensive side of the puck, as well. Blashill said Mantha has been reliable and accountable in the Red Wings’ zone, and that has translated to more opportunities. During his 10-game stint in Detroit in 2014-15, Mantha averaged less 11:42 of ice time per game. He’s increased that by nearly five minutes per outing this season, and only Henrik Zetterberg, Frans Nielsen, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have a higher nightly ice time than Mantha.
The unknown with Mantha, as it is with many young players, is how he would respond to the adversity, demotions and the sometimes public notions that he hadn’t shown enough to be an everyday NHLer. There was the comment that Mantha had been “very disappointing” by Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano, followed by Red Wings GM Ken Holland asserting that Mantha played only a relatively small part in the Griffins’ success. No one would say he hasn’t proven himself now, though.
“What you don’t know and what you learn about people is what they’re made of. I think that matters as much in determining success as the skill set,” Blashill said. “Certainly you have to have the skill set, but as Ken Holland likes to say, you have to have the will, as well. I don’t think you really know what people’s will is until they get tested, and I’ve seen (Mantha) get tested.”
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