When Anthony Mantha was selected 20th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, he became the highest pick made by the Detroit Red Wings since Jakub Kindl was taken 19th overall in 2005. Thanks to the Wings’ 24-season playoff streak (which is still going strong), the club has not had a lot of opportunities to draft highly-touted prospects in the drafts during that streak before they landed Mantha.
Sure, they grabbed plenty of prospects in the later rounds of those drafts who turned out to be NHL stars (such as Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Gustav Nyquist and several others), but there hadn’t been an 18 year-old who seemed as promising as Mantha did back in 2013.
However, the once-exciting Mantha was apparently a massive disappointment to Red Wings Senior Vice President Jim Devellano, who called the AHL rookie “very, very, very disappointing” despite the fact that he finished second among Grand Rapids Griffins rookies and ninth on the team with 33 points (15G, 18A). Though it may not be exactly eye-popping, that’s not a bad stat-line for a first-year pro, especially one who dealt with injuries.
Those injuries inhibited Mantha from rebounding and proving himself in the postseason, when he scored just four points in 16 games played; that’s one point less than what postseason call-up Dylan Larkin scored, having played 10 less playoff games and having had no prior professional hockey experience.
Despite all the disappointment for both Detroit management and well as the forward himself, Mantha seems to have at least one person in his corner: his former coach in Grand Rapids and newly-appointed Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill.
First of all, the expectation level on Anthony was too high [last season], and in part that was his fault. When you have a career like that in juniors, the expectations are too high. He got hurt two times during the season, and that made it difficult on him — especially at the beginning of the year, when you are establishing good habits. And then right before the playoffs, in June… I think Anthony has a skill set that will allow him to be a great player.
– Jeff Blashill
As the Red Wings coach mentioned, Mantha had quite the illustrious junior hockey career. In the 2013-2014 season, Mantha was living up to – and perhaps exceeding – expectations placed upon him after he was drafted. With an ‘A’ newly sewn onto his jersey, he helped lead his Val-d’Or Foreurs to a QMJHL championship and a Memorial Cup tournament berth.
He scored 120 points (57G, 63A) in just 57 regular-season games before putting up a remarkable 38 points in 24 QMJHL playoff games (he scored 24 goals and 14 assists). In the Memorial Cup tournament, he added four points in as many games.
But even some of the best major junior hockey stars fail to make it in the NHL due to injuries, inconsistency or a combination of both. Angelo Esposito – a former QMJHL standout who was a big part of a Memorial Cup championship with the Quebec Remparts – turned out to be a bust when injuries and an inability to make an impact at the professional level derailed his career and prevented him from ever suiting up for an NHL game.
But Mantha is not at that point, and Blashill has a lot of faith in him to make a successful transition to the NHL game; it’s just going to take some time.
I think Anthony still needs to learn to work as hard as you have to work, shift in and shift out, moving his feet, in order to utilize that skill set at the American league level and the NHL level. And it would have been impossible for him to realize he had to do that at the junior level, because he didn’t have to. Until you’ve faced a level where you actually have to, you’re never going to make those adjustments… That doesn’t happen overnight.
With a lot less pressure on him and an NHL coach who believes in his abilities, Mantha just needs to focus on adapting to the professional game and not worry about the harsh criticisms he received from within the organization last season; instead, he should use it as motivation. That should not be a problem, though, as the sniper is confident in his abilities (he said last summer that he thought he could have made the Red Wings roster last season).
If he can prove to be consistent this season, his prediction just may finally come true.