For the second year in a row, the Red Wings’ mathematical playoff chances are done by mid-March. And for the second year in a row, the Red Wings’ ‘MLB’ line is willing them to wins in Mid-March. Picking up four of six points in the past week, including a thrilling shootout win against Tampa Bay on Sunday, the team has been carried by the top-line. This late season surge from the big three has almost felt like déjà vu.
Of course, the Red Wings closed out the 2018-19 season with eight wins in the final 11 games. The trio of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi combined for an absurd 18 goals and 40 points in those 11 games.
To the dismay of some, last season’s offensive explosion was a bit of a backfire.
The additional 16 points came at the expense of the draft lottery, vaulting them to the fourth highest odds (as opposed to in the top-3 where they spent the majority of last season). This time around however, with the top odds already locked up, there won’t be repercussions.
Not that a few percentage points should diminish the dominant performances put on by the MLB line. Not many things have gone right in Detroit, but this top-line has been one of them.
Sunday’s unprecedented win against Tampa Bay embodied their unflappable chemistry, something that has eluded the rest of the roster. The three figured in the scoring of all four regulation goals, with Robby Fabbri being the lone member of another line to score. They brought it all: from Larkin’s greasy score from the net mouth to more finesse plays like Bertuzzi and Mantha’s 2-on-1 passing sequence for the then 4-2 lead.
Basically: they’re good. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that out. But how good? Who’s most responsible for their success?
On the season as a whole, they’ve played only 315 minutes together at even strength, in large part due to Mantha missing 30 games with injury. During the majority of Mantha’s mid-season absence, Larkin and Bertuzzi stuck together. In 506 minutes with Larkin and Bertuzzi on the ice but without Mantha, they are posting a 49.79 corsi for percentage and a 47.19 expected goals share. Add Mantha to their line and those numbers improve to (granted, with about 200 less minutes of sample size) a 53.18 CF% and 52.42 xGF%.
To visualize it in a clearer fashion (all numbers from 5-on-5):
Now, obviously, Mantha is the superior player to the likes of Fabbri or Filip Zadina (who mainly replaced him on the top-line), but the numbers are not as pretty when Bertuzzi is missing. In 151 minutes of Larkin and Mantha on the ice without Bertuzzi, the two are posting a 54.70 CF% and 58.80 xGF%.
The other remaining combination, Mantha and Bertuzzi without Larkin, has only seen 26 minutes of ice time this season.
Mantha could be proving to be the driving force behind the line’s success. After all, he’s been arguably Detroit’s best player when healthy. Evolving Hockey’s GAR (goals above replacement), which is a cumulative one tell all stat that represents a player’s total worth, has Mantha second among team skaters with 10 goals above replacement. Only Dylan Larkin ranks higher at 11.4, but remember it’s a cumulative statistic. Despite playing nearly 700 less minutes than Larkin, Mantha only trails by 1.4 GAR for the team lead.
So it’s no shocker Mantha also leads the team in points per 60 (2.81). When he’s playing, scoring picks back up. Since returning on Feb. 11 the Red Wings have played 14 games. In that time frame Larkin has registered 13 points and Bertuzzi 10.
So while draft lottery odds are not at stake this time, there are looming contract negotiations in play. Both Mantha and Bertuzzi are in line for big raises this Summer, and their impressive play down the stretch only helps their cause. Steve Yzerman will have his hands full with eight other restricted free agents pending, but the Mantha and Bertuzzi talks will be the priority.
Both the aforementioned two are 25 years old, which makes length of term something to keep an eye on. Short term deals would take either one to unrestricted free agency, which is obviously not ideal. Both would presumably be seeking a contract in the 4-7 year range. As the aging curve in the NHL continues to shrink, Yzerman will have to manage these negotiations carefully. Should arbitration bud in, a one year deal would carry both Mantha and Bertuzzi into a final RFA year.
Based on the previously mentioned findings, Mantha does seem like the stronger bet to land in the six or seven year range. No matter how you look at it, he’s been the engine of that line. Or, at the very least, much more so than Bertuzzi.
Ultimately, as key pieces to the Red Wings’ core, locking up Mantha and Bertuzzi for the foreseeable future is the only logical answer. That has always been the case. The extra counting stats to point to, though, could complicate things in the coming months, for better or worse.