By: Will Burchfield
Several Red Wings were guilty of coasting through Friday night’s anemic 6-2 loss to the Oilers, but Jeff Blashill singled out one.
“Anthony Mantha has to be way better, way better. It’s not okay to just be a passenger when you’re given the opportunity to be an impact player,” said Blashill.
For the second straight game, the 6’5 Mantha was mostly invisible. He drifted on the perimeter and was careless with the puck. The 23-year-old’s fluidity can sometimes be mistaken for a lack of effort, but on Friday night he looked genuinely disengaged.
“It’s a matter of making sure you compete every shift,” Blashill said simply.
Blashill has extended Mantha’s leash this season, and Mantha has mostly honored Blashill’s faith. He had 10 goals and 19 points through the Red Wings first 20 games. Moreover, he was playing with consistent intensity.
That intensity has waned of late.
“He’s not alone, but certainly he’s a guy who I’ve said to him at the beginning of the year, ‘For us to be great, you have to be great,'” Blashill said. “I think he’s gone through large stretches of being great, but he hasn’t been great the last two games.”
Mantha averaged 15:54 of ice time per game last season. He entered Friday night’s game averaging 17:22. He spent the game playing on Detroit’s top line with Henrik Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist. He finished with 18:49.
“Any young player has to learn how hard it is every night (in the NHL), especially as you start to go from being a complementary guy and kind of a 14-minute guy and now you want to move into the 18-, 19- and 20-minute range,” said Blashill. “It’s a learning process, for certain, and the great ones learn it and the good ones don’t.
“The great one’s are great for a reason — because they’re every single shift, every single night.”
The only reason Mantha didn’t get benched on Friday was because the Red Wings were down to 10 forwards after Scott Wilson left the game with an injury in the second period. (They dressed 11 forwards and 7 defensemen.)
“There wasn’t a whole lot of choice, to be dead honest with you,” said Blashill.
Regardless, it’s a tough line to walk. As much as Mantha needs to be held accountable, so do the Red Wings need him to remain confident. Blashill, given his coaching tenure in Grand Rapids, fortunately has a keen feel for many of the young players under his watch.
He’s the right guy to doll out punishment.
“It’s a balance for certain. Some guys react great when you take their ice time away and some guys go into a shell. I certainly know a lot of these guys very well and will try to push the right buttons,” he said.
Ultimately, this much is clear: The team comes before the player. That is, Blashill won’t cater to Mantha at the expense of the greater good.
“You have to make sure that you don’t lose your culture, work ethic and accountability,” said Blashill.
Almost to a man, the Wings played lackadaisical hockey on Friday night. They made too many cute plays and lost their structure. They abandoned the formula that had helped them pick up points in six of their past seven games.
Mantha just happened to be the most glaring culprit.
“We’ve got some young guys that I think have really helped in our success, when we’ve had success,” said Blashill. “But with those types of minutes comes big-time responsibility.”