Mantha, the organization’s top prospect, and a player heavily hyped as the next great Red Wing, hasn’t had a great first professional campaign with Grand Rapids of the AHL: 15 goals, 33 points, +5 in 62 games during the regular season.
Still, it was shocking to hear Detroit’s Senior Vice President Jim Devellano all but wipe his hands of Mantha when asked for an assessment of his play.
“Very, very, very disappointing,” Devellano told Keith Gave of Fox Sports. “And I say that with a lot of sadness. Coming out of junior, we had such high hopes for him.”
Devellano’s been around a long time, so the frankness of his assessment is no accident. Neither is the tone. This is a come-to-Jesus moment for a player who may be guilty of reading too many of his own press clippings.
Mantha, 20, was selected 20th overall by the Red Wings in the 2013 draft on the strength of some magic hands. The 6' 5", 214-pound winger scored 57 goals and 120 points in just 57 games with Val D'Or of QMJHL during the 2013-14 campaign and impressed with Team Canada at the World Juniors. There was talk that he might be the rare player who would jump directly from juniors right to the Red Wings last fall.
It didn’t happen for a number of reasons. Mantha needed to work on his skating, which is not uncommon for a big man. And, like many junior scorers, his play away from the puck needed an upgrade. All part of the development process.
That process was slowed by a fractured tibia which hampered Mantha’s ability to prepare for the season. But that wasn’t the problem. The issue, according to one pro scout, is his compete level. “The size is there. The skill is there. Sometimes the fire is missing,” the scout told SI.com. “You want to see more from him in the puck battles. You want to see him earn his space. He’s got that size, he has to use it.
“It’s a tough transition from juniors, but especially for big men. You see a lot of [kids] who used to be able to get by on their size struggle with it when they have to go up against big, strong men every night. It’s a whole new game. It’s a real test. Not everybody is going to pass it.
“But honestly I’ve seen improvement in his game during the second half of the season. His reads are better, his positioning is better. He cut back on his penalties. He’s figuring out the mental aspect of it and that’s a good sign, a positive sign. But yeah, there’s times [they’d] like to see him more engaged, more aggressive. It shows up at times and then others it’s just not there. I think that’s why [Devellano] sounded so frustrated [after watching Mantha play three poor games in the AHL playoffs].
“The key for any player in his position is to stay hungry. To constantly push himself to be a better player. And never take anything for granted. [Mantha] has an opportunity to be a special player, but no one is going to hand him a job. This was a reminder of that, that he has to earn it.”
Detroit GM Ken Holland said much the same yesterday.
“I think that’s why my managerial style is one of patience," Holland said. “Potential is a wonderful thing. But unless you fulfill your potential—and it’s a hard thing to fulfill your potential in the National Hockey League playing against men. That’s how they eat. That’s how they feed their families. They’re not going to let some young players take their jobs without a fight.
“So I think Anthony’s going through some adversity, but he obviously has got some great assets, and now he’s going to have to learn to improve in areas that the league says he needs to improve on.”
Mantha, who has just one assist, four shots and a –1 rating in five playoff games with Grand Rapids, clearly has work to do. If he didn’t know it before, he does now.
And it may take time. Maybe years. But the Wings aren’t ready to write him off just yet.