The 2017-18 season was never going to be a particularly fun one for the Detroit Red Wings. With cornerstones of a bygone era rapidly fading and younger players stepping into the spotlight, making the playoffs was a long shot in Hockeytown.
They play the games for a reason; maybe this club had a special 15- or 20-game run in the tank that could have made a wild card spot possible, but no. In the end, this version of the Red Wings is exactly who we thought they’d be this summer.
With a roster this unproven, all we can hope for across 82 games is passion, consistency and improvement.
In that regard, Anthony Mantha has arguably been the best Red Wings forward all season long. Sometimes he looks like he’s slacking out on the ice, but that’s an issue that can plague larger skaters like the 6-foot-5 forward. The reality is he has some of the best underlying numbers in Detroit and is on his way to leading the team in goals for the first time in his career.
But is this the Mantha we can expect to see in Detroit throughout the majority of his prime?
This was his age-23 season, and it was the step forward many in Detroit were hoping to see this year. Injuries prevented the former first-round pick from really hitting his stride in 2016-17, and while he did find the back of the net 17 times, it was evident that he had more to give in the offensive zone.
Which is what we have seen over the last several months. He still missed a handful of games, but was able to make it into almost every contest Detroit played. And, for the most part, Mantha did what was expected of him by head coach Jeff Blashill. He wasn’t perfectly consistent, but few natural goal scorers are able to flawlessly sprinkle their tallies across the weeks and months that make up a campaign.
Recency bias may make fans feel like they haven’t seen Mantha score much this season, but that’s likely because he just endured an 11-game scoring drought that ranged from March 8 until March 27. Outside of that near-month long dry spell, however, the winger has done a great job of hitting the scoresheet consistently.
There were some four- or five-game stretches where Mantha wasn’t scoring, but when you look at those spaces of time individually, he was still doing what he needed to do to secure goals. He hasn’t tended to shoot less when the pucks aren’t going in for him, which is a positive for the Red Wings. And it also indicates that he’s becoming a player who can handle tough patches without letting them consume his confidence.
Mantha spoke to Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News about that very thing recently and had this to say about his steadiness this season:
“My consistency this year was a little better the whole year. I just had a big slump here but I was playing pretty good hockey in general. It’s something I talked to Blash (coach Jeff Blashill) about a lot last year… It was something he thought I got better at.”
Not letting one bad game balloon into a bad week, and then into a bad month is key for just about any young scorer, but that seemed especially true for Mantha when he entered the NHL. It seemed like he was capable of scoring at will at the QMJHL level — he notched 107 goals in 124 games for the Val d’Or Foreurs across his last two seasons there.
Sometimes when high-impact forwards like Mantha turn pro, they struggle with confidence since they can’t continue to stuff the scoresheet. He’s figured out a way to roll with the punches over his nearly 150 games at the NHL level, though. And that confidence has lead to more red lights in favor of the Red Wings.
Aside from finding a more steady approach, Mantha also took his role on the power play and ran with it this year. After producing 1.6 points per hour on the extra man last season, that rate jumped all the way up to 4.2 points per hour in 2017-18. After not playing much net-front during his time in the “Q,” the forward was tasked with going to that spot during Detroit’s power plays.
It took him some time to get used to after years of being a shooter working off the half-wall, but it’s clearly a role Mantha has grown into. If that power-play unit even reaches the middle of the pack next year, it would likely mean even more finishing opportunities for Mantha.
One area where he could improve is raw shot output. More shots don’t always lead to more goals, but Mantha tends to get his looks from close to the net — hence his 13 percent shooting percentage this year. If he can generate one extra shot every three games (admittedly not an easy task) then it would likely propel Mantha towards the 30-goal plateau.
He’s taking 2.36 shots per game in all situations right now, which is just barely inside the NHL’s top-100 most active shooting forwards. Mantha is in the same neighborhood as Corey Perry and Patrick Marleau in this regard, so he’s not dogging it by any stretch. But if he pushed closer to 2.8 shots per outing, then there’d be even more goals in it for him.
It’s not like 2.8 shots per game is that outlandish; that’s about what Dylan Larkin will finish with this season.
Considering all of this, it doesn’t seem like Mantha has hit his ceiling. If anything, we should be looking at 2017-18 as his floor over the next four or five seasons. As the Red Wings continue to add talent, it stands to reason that the power play will get better and 5-on-5 won’t always be such an adventure.
Assuming health, don’t be shocked to see Mantha flirting with 30 goals next season and beyond.