Photo Credit: Rick Ostenoski/USA TODAY SPORTS
I’ve thought all season that the breakout rookie year for 19-year old Dylan Larkin may be unfairly coloring our judgment of who and what Anthony Mantha is, and, if anything, making his lack of progress and strides in getting to the NHL level. So has it done that for you so far?
Let’s start with the fact that we all would admit Anthony Mantha was and is a prized Detroit Red Wings prospect, and Tuesday in Tampa; he got his first point, an assist on Darren Helm’s second-period goal. Last night, during the early offensive outburst against the Canadiens, he showed his quick hands in tight quarters, scoring his first ever NHL goal.
I will take the bold step of predicting Mantha will get more assists, and shockingly, more goals. But a year ago at this time, there was the overused word in sports journalism and sports talk, in general.
Are you concerned? If so, how concerned? What’s your LEVEL of concern? When did you start getting concerned?
Now, there are many reasons why the concern is probably unnecessary, and indeed, the “bust” word shouldn’t be attached to Mantha at this point. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be attached anytime soon.
But I’ve lived this, and certainly will again, it’s very easy sports talk radio fodder for hosts to declare greatness or lack thereof long before there’s even remotely enough anecdotal evidence to suggest a player is either. That’s just the way the world works, and most of us have gotten very used to being a prisoner of the moment. That probably wasn’t the greatest movie ever made that you just walked out of, nor will the sandwich and fries you ate immediately before that greatest movie ever be considered for induction into the Hall Of Fame for Prepared Foods, but you feel that at the time, and you go with it.
When Larkin made the team as a teenager, being such a no-doubter in training camp and the early evenings of preseason games, it began to cast a comparative shadow. When it looked like the Red Wings had too many financial commitments to NHL-ready contracts to consider keeping him with the big club, and he still made the team, that undoubtedly had an altering effect on how people perceived Mantha.
“Hey, Larkin’s amazing, isn’t he? Sure wish Mantha had turned out the same way!”
Not considered enough was the fact, Larkin was drafted five places higher (15th in 2014, as opposed to 20th for Mantha in 2013), and ranked by some to be worth picking even higher than that. Not considered was that the 2014 NHL Entry Draft is already regarded as having had a much deeper 1st and 2nd round.
Mantha was a scoring machine (81-77-158 in 81 games, counting playoffs) in his 19-year old season at Val D’Or on a deep team built for a lengthy playoff run. That said, his first foray into “men’s” hockey in the AHL last season in 14/15 garnered mixed reviews. Many observers within the organization and objective scouts without skin in the game thought his play (especially away from the puck) got notably worse late in the regular season and during the Griffins’ playoff run, there were some troubling signs.
Admittedly, Mantha’s first pro season got off to an unfortunate start with the leg fracture in Traverse City, and maybe, just maybe, he was playing an unwinnable game of catch-up when he was able to get back up to speed and play regularly in Jeff Blashill’s Griffins’ lineup before Christmas. This season, with new coaches and new responsibilities, the scoring pace improved all the way up to the point where he was called up.
It’s as unfair to judge Mantha as a comparison point to Larkin, because we all acknowledge how special Larkin has been. Don’t compare his productivity the rest of this season, or early next either, to that of Gustav Nyquist. While Nyquist became a phenom in that 13-14 season, remember he was able to string together two very long call-up auditions in the two previous seasons, with minimal power play time. In 40 games, Nyquist scored a mere four goals in 44 games (counting the four he played in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs), and didn’t truly find regular ice until that first round series against Anaheim when he scored a crucial goal in the 5-4 Game 2 win. By then, Mike Babcock played him not out of curiosity, but out of necessity, given players like Todd Bertuzzi, Mikael Samuelsson, and, yes, Jordin Tootoo were his other options to help contribute offense in a series against a better offensive team.
Conversely, if you isolate picks 11-20 from his draft year, six of 10 players have played regularly in the NHL this season or even the prior year. The Coyotes’ Max Domi, and Sabres’ draft pick Nikita Zadorov (flipped to Colorado in the Ryan O’Reilly blockbuster) aside, I don’t think the Red Wings feel that Curtis Lazar of the Sens or, say, Kerby Rychel of the Blue Jackets have more patented upside than Mantha does. I doubt Ken Holland would make 1-for-1 swaps involving Mantha for any players below #10 overall all the way through the first round for anyone other than Domi or Zadorov. You might have a compelling argument for Washington’s Andre Burakovsky.
But the story today over breakfast and lunch is Mantha, and it should be. There’s a lot there to be excited about with Mantha. What you never hear about Mantha is criticism of his hands, his work ethic, and obviously his size. Yes, the old adage is you can’t “teach size” but ask any hockey coach at practically any level and they will also claim that hands and work ethic are often not any easier to instill. Some get it, and some don’t.
Early days, but this may be a slow build towards a very reliable and larger-than-average Top 6 NHL forward. Let’s get past that it won’t be the instant impact of Larkin this year, or Sergei Fedorov in 1990-91. But would you settle for Keith Primeau?
One shouldn’t expect Mantha to suddenly become Keith Primeau nor do they even play the same position, but you may recall that Primeau, a third overall pick, initially struggled to adapt to the NHL. After dominating the OHL, Primeau found himself buried at the bottom of the Red Wings forwards’ depth chart and in his 19-year old year in 1991-92, played more games with Adirondack that he did with the big club. A difficult year culminated in him being utterly overmatched in playoff series against Minnesota and Chicago, so much so that he went pointless in eleven games.
Again, I recall there was concern about Primeau’s development, but after turning 22 early in his 1993-94 season, things clicked. He got ample opportunity given Steve Yzerman had an injury-riddled 58-game campaign, and opponents’ best checking lines were dealing with how to contain Sergei Fedorov and his linemates during his 120-point Hart Trophy year.
But it’s food for thought not to stress too much about Mantha’s development. He’s playing a regular shift in an NHL playoff race, and if the Wings miss out or are eliminated early, the Griffins look set for a decent Calder Cup run, and he can go back and be a big part of that.