By: Will Burchfield
It was late in the summer, and for Anthony Mantha, Jeff Blashill’s offer was like a melting ice cream cone.
There was all the enticement of a spot on the power play, all the messiness of playing a net-front role.
Take it, Blashill told him, or leave it. So Mantha took it, dirty hands be damned.
“When you’re a young player coming up, you want to do what you’ve done, and most of these guys have all played on the flank somewhere on the power play and handled the puck the whole time. But not everyone gets to do that here,” said Blashill. “It’s just a matter of spots.
“I talked to him when camp opened and said, ‘This is the spot I have for you and you have to embrace it.’”
Mantha has answered Blashill’s challenge. Through 21 games, the 23-year-old forward has five power play goals. Only three NHL players have more. He has found the back of the net by planting himself in front of it and refusing to move.
Of course, it helps that he’s built like a truck. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s got hands like grease. Take those two assets together, and it’s almost like Mantha was made for this – namely, to torment goalies on the power play.
“You could say so,” Mantha said with a shrug. “Obviously, the bigger body you are, the easier maybe the net-front is, just to get in front of that goalie’s eyes. I mean, you’re not going to send a guy that’s 5’10 in front of (Ben) Bishop who’s 6’7. I think it’s just an easier role for me than other guys.”
He talks casually about it now, almost like he’s been doing it his whole life. But nothing could be further from the truth. Mantha was always the star player growing up, all the way through the Quebec Major Junior League, and star players aren’t asked to play in front of the net. It’s a role reserved for the gritty players, the ones with less skill.
Players like Mike Knuble, who coached Mantha for parts of three seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Knuble made a living in front of the net over a 16-year NHL career, scoring nearly a third of his 278 goals on the power play.
“It was a way for me to survive. I’m very thankful that I discovered that role and was given a chance to get that role. It changed my life to be able to play in that role,” Knuble told 97.1 The Ticket.
Knuble was in Grand Rapids when Mantha arrived early in the 2014-15 season. So was Blashill, at the time the Griffins’ head coach. Blashill looked at Mantha, Detroit’s first-round draft pick who had scored 81 goals in 81 games the year before in the Q, and stuck him in front of the net on the power play.
Mantha, out of his comfort zone and perhaps a bit offended, didn’t like the assignment. He had always played on the half wall. The power play had always run through him.
“Anthony kind of fought it a little bit,” Knuble recalled. “He thought that it might have been an insult, that he’s got more to offer than that. I think there was a little pushback from him initially about being a net-front guy, and Blash just kept sticking him there.”
For Blashill, it was partly a way to keep Mantha honest, to make him earn his ice time in a competitive league. It was also a way to open the youngster’s eyes to an age-old truth.
“Having him net-front on the power play helped him understand the value of being at the net. Mike Knuble was somebody who learned that value really young. When guys can learn it, they understand that if you’re around the net there’s lots of goals to be had,” Blashill said.
This didn’t resonate with Mantha right away, perhaps because he wasn’t seeing the results. He had two goals in his first nine games with the Griffins, neither of which came on the power play. He was 20 years old and pining for things to go back to normal.
“Anthony felt like, with his talent, I’m a half-wall guy. That’s where the talented guys go. I think lot of young players (think) it’s kind of the meatheads that go to the front of the net, the no-talent guys. The irony of that is, the puck has to come to the front of the net,” said Knuble.
For Knuble, the value of doing the dirty work became clear when he began to share the ice with great players. The only way to stay in their company, he knew, was to muddle things in front and stir up scoring chances.
For Mantha, the epiphany came in the form of a message.
“It was Knuble. He told me that every puck had to go by you to get to the net, so you have a chance at every goal. If you can just get a piece of that tip it could easily be your goal. I think that kind of changed my head going into it, just knowing that I have a chance at every puck,” Mantha said.
Boiled down to a single word from Knuble, the front of the net is a “funnel.” Mantha saw the light and soon began reaping the rewards. He was helped further by Mitch Callahan and Eric Tangradi, two teammates of his in Grand Rapids who loved to worked the front of the net and were happy to share some tips.
Mantha finished the season with six power play goals, good for third on the team.
Blashill took over the Red Wings the following season, while Mantha, still in Grand Rapids, moved back to the half wall on the power play. He earned a call-up to Detroit in March and scored his first NHL goal in his fifth game, banging home a rebound on the power play. He would strike again three games later, in the exact same fashion.
Mantha spent most of the 2016-17 season with the Red Wings and posted 17 goals in 60 games. Only one of them, though, came on the power play, thanks in part to a lack of chances. He finished eighth among the team’s forwards in power play ice time.
Blashill decided to give Mantha more opportunity this year, provided he was willing to do something that in some ways still goes against his hockey nature.
“If he could have picked his spot on the power play at the beginning of the year, I don’t think it would have been net-front. I think he would have picked somewhere else,” said Blashill.
Said Mantha, “I think half wall,” before adding agreeably, “or net front.”
Of course, it’s easy to make that concession now.
Half of Mantha’s 10 goals have come in front of the net on the power play, either on rebounds or deflections. He leads the NHL – by a considerable margin – in goals per 60 minutes of power-play ice time. And that’s not a product of small sample size. Mantha has seen his power play ice time jump by nearly 30 seconds per game from last season, from 1:53 to 2:17.
His production has been huge for a Red Wings team that needed to make drastic improvements this season on the man advantage. After converting just 15.1 percent of their opportunities last year, good for 27th in the league, they’re up to 22.4 percent this year, good for eighth.
Mantha, whose next power play goal will give him one more than any Wings player had last year, has been both a beneficiary and a driving force.
“When the power play’s hot you can get rolling,” said Blashill. “I think the power play’s been hot and he’s scored lots on that. I just think it’s part of the maturation of him as a player. As you mature as a player, you get more ice time. As you get more ice time, you get more chances to produce when you’re talented like he is.”
Staking out the front of the net requires a certain mindset, no doubt about it. To Knuble, it’s a combination of hunger and selfishness.
“Any puck that comes in here, I have to touch it. I have to get a piece of it,” he explained. “That’s your area, you own it.”
But it also demands an underrated level of skill.
“You still have to be able to finish,” said Justin Abdelkader, a long-time net-front scorer.
What’s more, there are nuances to the job that can only be learned through experience. When to set a screen versus when to look for a deflection. How to track a rebound, sometimes without seeing the original shot. When to leave the front of the net to help win in a battle in the corner.
“There’s all kinds of little things you realize, and some of that takes some time,” said Knuble. “It’s always nice to have a little tutoring, but if you can have that mentality and then have incredible skills, well, you’re kind of ahead of everybody.”
To that end, Mantha works with Abdelkader after each morning skate to refine his hand-eye coordination. The two of them linger in front of the net at the defensemen’s end of the ice and try to get their sticks on every shot that comes from the blue line.
Mantha also has this working in his advantage: He’s tough, with a history of being mean. He’s already dropped the gloves twice in the NHL, including earlier this month when he quickly turned the tables on aggressor Travis Hamonic. There’s some snarl within that 6’5, 225-pound frame, and that holds some weight in front of the net.
“I think other players around the league know you’re not going to be able to abuse this guy, push him around and knock him out of there. He’s going to give back as much as he takes,” Knuble said.
“That’s not his game,” Knuble added, “but if that’s another feather in your cap, it keeps guys honest and ends up making your life a little bit easier around the net.”
Of course, going to the net isn’t nearly the daunting proposition it once was. Lighter sticks and stricter rules have made life easier for the intruding forwards. In Knuble’s day, he had to deal with the likes of Chris Pronger and Darian Hatcher.
“They had wood sticks and it was just no mercy. The style was to just bury the guy in front. Since the 2004 lockout, they really reduced the stick work, and now everybody’s using composite sticks that don’t quite bite into your back and your arms as much,” Knuble said. “So, in all fairness to the guys who played before, it’s gotten much easier to play around the net.”
Mantha agreed. In fact, when asked if he’s encountered a defenseman who stands out as particularly nasty in front, he said, “Not really, because with the new rules these days on slashing, as soon as they hit you they’ll go in the box and then you’ll be on the five-on-three.”
Because of this, Mantha said, defensemen try to play in front of tip-happy forwards these days rather than behind them, in hopes of blocking a shot before it gets through. But good luck establishing position on Mantha.
“Determination’s for sure a key factor there,” he said.
If the net is a funnel, Mantha is the vortex in front of it. Nothing gets by him. His ranginess coupled with a stick that’s nearly as long as he is tall gives him a radius that few players in the NHL can match.
“He can touch a puck probably 10 feet on either side of him and get a tip on it or get a rebound. “He’s turning into that classic guy,” Knuble said.
This transformation could be witnessed in real time last week against the Flames. Mantha scored twice on the power play, first by pouncing on his own rebound after a deflection in the slot, then by redirecting a puck over the goalie’s glove from a low angle just outside the crease. His stick did almost all the work on both goals.
“He’s the prototypical guy. Other teams have tried to put their biggest, longest-reaching guy in front of the net just to create havoc,” said Knuble, referencing Zdeno Chara in Boston, “but his skill set is obviously such a complement for his size. Usually those two things don’t go together.”
And here’s a scary thought for opposing defensemen: Mantha still has some filling-out to do.
“When he ages up here a little bit and develops some more man strength, he’s going to be real hard to handle down there and win even more battles around the net,” Knuble said.
Scoring goals in today’s NHL is incredibly hard, perhaps harder than it’s ever been. Defenses are so well structured. Goalies are impossibly fine-tuned. For those charged with cracking this code, as Mantha is in Detroit, it helps to have an array of devices.
Mantha has added another to his repertoire this season. As a result, he’s learning the best antidote to a goal-scorer’s most common ailment – that dreaded inconsistency – is perhaps the oldest one in the book.
“You can go through times where pucks aren’t going in or things aren’t going your way,” said Abdelkader, “but you always want to try to find yourself going to the net because that’s where pucks will be.”
“He’s learning to be a weapon there,” said Blashill.
There are footsteps for Mantha to follow in Detroit. Or, in this case, divots. Dino Ciccarelli never yielded the front of the net on the power play. Nor did Tomas Holmstrom.
“The Red Wings have a history of it, starting with Scotty (Bowman), through Mike Babcock, and Blash believes in it too,” said Knuble.
“You’ve had Dino here, you’ve had Holmstrom here. Danny Cleary did it for a long time, Abby did it for a long time and now Anthony’s doing it. He’s probably the most talented out of all of them. For sure the biggest, probably the best hands, best shot, best skater out of the whole group, so the future’s going to be bright for them there,” Knuble said. “He’s going to be there a long time.”
There is a paradox to Mantha’s newfound role. He can do any number of things on the ice, a player as physically gifted as they come, but his game is suited for one of the more unglamorous jobs in hockey. It took him time to accept this. He has.
“I’m happy with my spot on the power play,” he said.
So are the Wings.