By: Will Burchfield
The path to the NHL is littered with abandoned careers, the carcasses growing in number as the destination draws near. Each step is more difficult than the one that precedes it.
Well, that’s the outward impression.
“I’ll be honest, I think it’s easier up here than in the American League,” said Anthony Mantha, who reached the 20-goal plateau last weekend in his first full NHL season.
It was a response that raised eyebrows, from a 23-year-old who typically draws attention for his play. Don’t mistake it for flippant — Mantha can appreciate the challenge of gaining a foothold in the NHL as well as anyone on the Red Wings’ roster. And certainly don’t mistake it for a player who thinks he’s already arrived.
Take it, rather, for a glimpse into Mantha’s perspective. He’s played over 100 games in both the AHL and the NHL. He was stuck between the two leagues for the better part of two years. Some felt the Wings weren’t giving him a fair shake; the Wings felt he needed to earn it.
His performance last year — 17 goals in 60 games — was the statement the team was looking for. Jeff Blashill rewarded him with a bigger role this season and Mantha has once again answered the bell.
“As soon as you come up here and get your chance and get some confidence going, it makes everything way easier,” Mantha said.
Confidence wasn’t hard for Mantha to come by in the AHL. Nor was ice time. But it’s a league that presents its own challenges, defined as it is by youth. When nearly every player is trying to learn, develop and prove himself, all at the same time, the ice can get messy. In the NHL, where everything is polished, talent has more room to shine.
Mantha is proof.
“As you mature and you gain experience, obviously you can slow the game down a little bit, compared to the American League (where) everyone’s just going 110 miles per hour and sometimes you have two or three guys on you. The structure’s not always on point,” Mantha said. “It’s just a different mindset, if I could say.”
Scoring 20 goals was something Mantha aimed to do entering this season. He’s reached his mark with about a quarter of the season left to play. Nine of those goals have come on the power play, where Mantha has become a net-front weapon. Of the 11 at even strength, five have been set up by Henrik Zetterberg — the kind of center who makes life for his linemates easy.
Mantha, Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist have comprised Detroit’s top line for much of the year.
“If you get a lot of ice time, you play with the good players, so it gives you a better chance to put more points up and feel more comfortable on the ice,” said Martin Frk, who spent most of his career in the AHL prior to this season. “It’s definitely still a tough league, playing in the NHL, but it can be way easier if you have good players around you and you play a lot.”
Mantha, who leads the Wings in goals, has a target number of points in mind as well. But he doesn’t want to reveal it — not yet, at least. He’s third on the team with 36 and on pace for about 50, a nice round number that would be the best of his professional career (including the AHL). With respect to confidentiality, is he on pace?
“Yes and no,” Mantha replied. “This league’s always up and down. In a stretch of five games you’ll get 10 points and then you’ll be scoreless for five, so I just need to keep working and try to get my goal reached.”
Mantha has six points in his last seven games, shaking out of a little midseason slump that saw his offense dry up. Every point from here on out will mark a new NHL high. But of greater importance are the goals. The Red Wings are banking on Mantha becoming a scorer they can build around, and he’s within range of a 30-goal season. That’s rare territory, these days, for a 23-year-old.
It was at age 20, in Grand Rapids, that Mantha first played under Blashill, and the coach has pushed the big winger to evolve his game ever since. Last year was mostly about raising his compete level. This year has centered on embracing those dirty areas of the ice — namely, the front of the net — that Mantha once preferred to avoid.
Whether Mantha has looked more comfortable this season than he ever did in the AHL, Blashill wouldn’t say. But at his sport’s pinnacle, Mantha is finding the game easy.
“I would say that when you’re a smart hockey player you like playing with other smart hockey players, and there’s certainly lots of them around here, so I can understand that a little bit,” Blashill said. “Anthony over the last 10 games has been real good and, boy, the last two periods (Tuesday versus the Predators) he was excellent.
“Let’s keep pushing that envelope and seeing how good he can be.”