By the end of this year's development camp, Anthony Mantha had a look of apprehension and possibly dread on his face when members of the media approached him. It's not difficult to understand why, given all the criticism he's faced so early in his career, the unkind judgmental things written and said about him, and the sheer number of times he's been asked repeatedly about his "disappointing" season. Jim Devellano infamously said that Mantha's was very very very disappointing and that the organization previously "had" high hopes for him. Just recently a Wings beat writer even went as far as to say that Mantha is a reclamation project, after just his first professional season. Are these accusations and many others fair to Mantha? Does he deserve this much denigration? Absolutely not.
Inflated Expectations Aren't Mantha's Fault
Most of the criticism and judgment lobbed at Mantha are a result of people being let down because he didn't live up to their rookie season expectations. Given that most expectations for Mantha were unrealistic and nearly, if not completely unachievable, it's pretty ridiculous to hold him accountable for not living up to them. Even while Mantha was still playing in the QMJHL there were many people who thought he could and should make the Red Wings roster right out of training camp, that he'd score 30 goals, or he'd light the AHL up and dominate that league. There was a lot of excitement and anticipation for Mantha to turn pro and while much of that excitement was deserved based on his abilities, things got wildly out of control. Now, after not living up to overblown expectations, many fans are calling for him to be traded, think he's a dud, or are ready to leave him by the wayside for the newest prospect they're setting up on a pedestal.
Why Expectations Were Unachievable
It's easy to look at Mantha's final season in the Q, see 120 points in 57 games, and start envisioning him scoring 50 points in an NHL season. He led the QMJHL in scoring and had 2.11 points per game, that's crazy, right? He must be an offensive phenom who's so far ahead of his peers that he needs to be in the NHL, and he'll score goals like no prospect we've seen before. The challenge when projecting a prospect that comes out of the QMJHL, is that the Q is a stupidly offensive league and no one will do at a higher level what they did in the Q.
To give a little context, last Year there were 54 players in the QMJHL who had greater than a point per game pace. There were 36 players in the AHL with a point per game pace or higher,and last year there were only 14 in the NHL including 6 players who only played in 1 game.
It's very difficult to move from the QMJHL to the AHL largely because of the disparity in skill, size, and speed of the game. Former Griffins coach and current Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said "This [the AHL] is a hard, hard league. The jump from the Quebec League to the American League is way harder than from the American League to the NHL from what I've seen." Mantha may have been a man among boys in the Q, but there was no way he could have prepared to be a boy among men until he actually was. Even if he hadn't suffered a broken leg, expecting him to jump right into the NHL was a fantasy, but not because of a lack of skill, talent, or determination on Mantha's part.
Watch his 2013-2015 goals and note how much time and space he has, and how often he's left alone and open just waiting to shoot the puck. That's not going to happen in the AHL, much less the NHL and the only way for him to learn how to score goals with less time and space with opposing players hounding him, is for him to go up against better players and learn.
How Disappointing Was His Rookie Season?
Short answer? Only a little.
Mantha suffered a broken leg in the Prospect Tournament in September, so he wasn't able to participate in the rest of the tournament, Red Wings training camp, Griffins training camp, and also missed the first 11 games of the Griffins' season. Missing all those learning opportunities leading up to his rookie season were in themselves an additional hurdle he had to jump over, in addition to the challenges inherent to the leap into the AHL. When he was finally able to play his first AHL game he hadn't played a game in 2 months, and was limited in what workouts or conditioning he could do. Because of his setbacks, he got off to a very rough start in Grand Rapids. Some of his struggles were from the injury, and some were a natural byproduct of a bigger, faster, more skilled league. At times early on, he looked almost lost on the ice, unable to keep up mentally with the speed of the game. He continued to improve throughout the season, and by the time there was no more hockey left to play for the Griffins, Mantha was starting to look like he belonged in the AHL.
He played 62 regular season games and finished 8th on the team in points with 33, tied for 7th in goals with 15, was 3rd on the team in power play goals with 6, and scored 0.53 points per game which was the 9th best on the team; for reference, Andreas Athanasiou scored 0.58 points per game. Let's compare Mantha's rookie season to the rookie season to another offensively minded Red Wing. In Tomas Tatar's rookie season with the Griffins he scored 16 goals and had a total of 32 points in 58 games, which equals 0.55 points per game. All of the disapproval and negativity about Mantha's struggles in his rookie season have overshadowed the fact that he actually had a decent year, even while dealing with the broken leg and all the setbacks and delays that brought on. While Mantha's been criticized all year long, Tatar was constantly praised and lauded in his rookie season yet these two players had almost identical production stats. Why has Mantha received so much overblown ridicule?
Perception Isn't Everything
What are the buzz phrases we hear repeatedly about Anthony Mantha? That he has to improve his compete level, needs to increase his intensity, and become an every dayer. While Mantha does still need to work on those areas of his game, it's also true that his downfalls have often been greatly exaggerated. When I say that Anthony Mantha reminds me a lot of Johan Franzen, what's the first thing that comes to mind? A goal scoring beast who's streaky yet a big contributor to the team's offense and success? Probably not. For a lot of people it's the immediate thought something like "Oh great, another big lazy oaf who doesn't give a shit, doesn't go out and hit people, and bla bla bla" Let's set the record straight here, Anthony Mantha DOES care, he DOES work hard, and he IS dedicated to getting better.
On a radio interview on May 6th, Bob Kaser talked about Mantha's response to people saying he's in cruise control on the ice. According to Kaser, Mantha said that he's watched the video and sees himself doing it [not being engaged enough in play] , but when he's in the game he doesn't feel like he is. This goes back to the ridiculousness of the QMJHL, and the fact that Mantha could float all day long and still score goals and put up stupid points. Because that style of play doesn't fly in the higher leagues, he's having to learn what he's doing wrong and how to correct it. For him, it's a natural part of his journey and he's doing his best to learn and improve. Mantha has high expectations for himself and he holds himself to a high standard.
In February, while Mantha was still struggling to adjust to the the AHL, Coach Jeff Blashill said "When you care as much as he [Mantha] cares, as soon as he learns the daily attention to detail and the daily work ethic it takes, with his skill set, he's going to be a special player". Learning what it takes on a daily basis to be a successful NHL player is a process for all young players, so the fact that Mantha is also learning the "daily attention" as Blashill put it, shouldn't come as a shock, and also isn't a reason to question his desire.
Because of his size, it often looks like he's not trying or putting forth enough effort from the fan perspective, but that's not always the case and jumping to the assumption that he's not trying or is lazy, or doesn't care, is both ignorant and presumptuous. We as people are internally hardwired differently. Some people always seem to be fired up and energetic about everything, while others don't naturally reflect that energy or passion outwardly, even if they have it inwardly. Claiming to know someone's internal motivation and intent is a dangerous game to play, and usually leads to incorrect assumptions.
What Does Kill You...
Mantha has matured a lot in the last year, in his on ice performance, in his mental approach to the game, and in his development. "Last year I learned a lot and it was an up and down season. This year I know how to approach it and I know how to control it if there's bumps along the way. I'm more confident this year in those aspects and I hope it helps me throughout the season." Watching him in Development camp was the first time I can remember watching him have fun while on the ice. Last year he was all business, and the intense pressure and expectations weighed heavily on him. This year he was still taking the training and lessons seriously and working hard, but he was also laughing, smiling, and joking around with his teammates. "Oh for sure. We're here to learn, but first of all we need to have fun or else you don't play your game and this week was lots of fun.
Sometimes it's easy to forget that Mantha is just a 20 year old rookie and easy to heap expectations upon him that just aren't fair or realistic. He has a lot of skill, talent, and potential that we'll see blossom in the upcoming years, but he's not superman and it's important to try to adjust expectations based on his individual development path. I asked Jeff Blashill what advice he's had for Mantha to help keep him from being too discouraged or hard on himself and it's good advice for every prospect that comes through the organization. "The biggest message Anthony and I have talked about is just that his is a journey. He's run both sides of the gamut where a year ago the expectations were really high and there was a lot of deserved media hype about him, and hype within our organization about him. He got injured twice at critical moments in the year at different times where he had some struggles and it probably wasn't as easy as he thought it was going to be coming in. This isn't the end, it's just part of the journey, let's keep going, let's keep working, let's keep finding ways to improve and get better."
To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected.
Anthony Mantha is at the beginning of his journey and it's a lot of pressure for a young kid to be saddled with the expectations and pressure that have been thrust upon him. The reality is that he's just about where he should be given all the circumstances and he's poised to have a productive sophomore AHL season.