One year ago today, perception of the top Red Wings prospect was completely different. You see, back in my day, we had to walk 15 miles to see our favorite prospects play, and the snow was up to our shoulders. We didn't whine about it, or call them a disappointment! Anyways, if you were to go back a year ago, just after the Red Wings had drafted Dylan Larkin, the attention was centered around one prospect in particular. That prospect, was Anthony Mantha, of course. The Red Wings drafted Mantha in 2013 at 20th overall, after trading down with San Jose to acquire a later first round pick (20th), and a 2nd round pick (58th) for their first round pick (18th.)
The season after being drafted was where Anthony Mantha made heads turn in the hockey world. The 18-year-old winger scored 81 goals in 81 games with Val-d'Or in the QMJHL, and lead his team to the Memorial Cup Finals. After winning multiple awards, and the highest of praise from media from every nook of the hockey world, it seemed that Mantha was all but destined for NHL glory straight out of training camp. Unfortunately for Mantha, this was not the case. I remember interviewing Big Tony at prospect development camp - It was the year Detroit had drafted Dylan Larkin at 15th overall, the highest Red Wings draft pick in over two decades. Judging by the way media flocked over to the rookie's locker, everyone thought Mantha was the best thing since sliced bread. Expectations were high, no doubt. But were they too high? Absolutely.
You see, when a player scores as much as Mantha did in his final year at the junior level, the bar of expectations will likely be set out of reach. This is precisely what happened with Anthony Mantha. After having a successful development camp, Mantha was ready to participate in the Prospect Tournament, a great tradition that involves multiple NHL teams and their top prospects. Unfortunately for the six-foot-five lefty, he sustained a fractured tibia when his skate hit a rut in the ice. This put Mantha in crutches, and out of action for an extended period of time. Not only did this prevent him from participating in main camp, he was unable to do what was expected of him - Make the Red Wings opening night roster.
Mantha made his professional debut with the Griffins late in the fall after fully recovering from his injury. While he didn't score 100 goals in his first game, his first career goal came just one day later.
Let's be realistic - Mantha got unfair treatment. Why do I say this? Because he was expected to be a hot-shot prominent goal-scoring dynamo after he won the Jean Beliveau (QMJHL's highest scorer), and the Michel Briere (QMJHL MVP) trophies in 2013-2014. Let's set aside the myriad of awards the former 20th overall pick was honored with, which of course included CHL Player of the Year, Mantha's production in his final season at the junior level showed Red Wings brass that they could have something that they have went without for some time - A pure goal-scorer.
Mantha finished his rookie AHL season with 33 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 62 games, and four points (two goals, two assists) in 16 playoff games. Not only did he finish with that, he also finished with a truckload of unfair criticism of his abilities from both fans, and even the organization itself.
What did we expect? Did we expect Mantha to come from the pillow-soft QMJHL to the AHL and score at a goal-per-game pace? If you expected that, you're out of your mind. Even for a 1st overall pick, just get out of here. The fans, the media, the organization set this kid up to be the hockey-equivelant of Superman, and anything less than that would be deemed as a "disappointment." Phooey. While he didn't put himself on a fast-track to the NHL by scoring production in his rookie year, I will tell you this right now: Anthony Mantha has one of the best wrist shot releases in the organization, and when you mix his size with his skating abilities, you simply cannot rule this kid out. Even as a streaky scorer, he's projected as a top-six NHL forward who can give you at least 20 goals. I don't know about you, but when I look at the tools Mantha has, his ceiling should be higher than that. If he can develop his two-way abilities to a serviceable status, his reach will make him a fantastic player in all three zones.
He was one of the best players in the CHL in 2013-2014, and that set the expectations. At the end of the day, Mantha is still a kid and needs time to develop. So what if he didn't dominate from the get-go? Not many players do. It took Tomas Jurco a year to get adjusted to the AHL, so why can't Mantha? Especially after coming off of a leg injury that sidelined him for three months?
Anthony Mantha is a big kid with soft hands who has lots of questions circling around his "compete level", the mythical try-hard rating which gives people insight into the very soul of what makes a player the very best or a bust. Fortunately, he's coming up in the organization at the same time we're dealing with the idea that we might have to phase out the last big kid with soft hands and questionable compete levels. Is Anthony Mantha the next Johan Franzen? Possibly. Did you kind of shudder when you read through that? Well you shouldn't.
At this point, the rating/overrating/reflexive re-rating of the kid has my head spinning. I almost certainly thought too highly of him when he was drafted and his junior year after that. High scoring in a no-defense league is still a bit intoxicating, no matter how much you tell yourself that "play two-minute shifts all the time" isn't going to immediately translate to higher leagues. At this point, I'm just trying to atone for any thought that it's possibly disappointing a 20th overall pick could only turn into a good top-six forward instead of becoming a perennial all-star scoring force.
Any more, I kind of just want to shut up about Anthony Mantha and let his play do the talking.
The worst two things to happen to Anthony Mantha have been 1) his bonkers 57g/63a in 57 games statline in his 3rd year of junior and 2) Dylan Larkin's equally ridiculous freshman season at UM while Mantha was acclimating and recovering from injury in his first pro season. The former set expectations too high (of course a huge player with skating ability and a great shot will wreck a bunch of teenagers) and the latter made people unfairly compare two drastically different players. Let's do a quick comparison of recent Wings prospects who started their pro careers in the AHL:
A: 15 goals, 33 points in 62 games in age 20 season
B: 14 goals, 28 points in 74 games in age 20 season
C: 16 goals, 32 points in 58 games in age 19 season
A = Mantha, B = Jurco, C = Tatar. In Jurco's second pro season he exploded for 32 points in 32 games, and he has yet to suit up for a game in Grand Rapids since then. This doesn't mean Mantha is a lock for the same thing, but the point is this type of development timeline is pretty common (especially for someone who had a significant physical advantage at the previous level), and neither Tatar nor Jurco had to deal with multiple injuries during their first pro seasons like Mantha did.
With all that in mind, all the hyperbole over Mantha seems a little silly. Mantha is still the same guy with the same upsides and downsides that he was the day Detroit drafted him. His risk of totally busting is real, and his chance to turn into a 25-30 goal NHL scorer is real, and nothing we've seen so far has ruled out either of those possibilities.
Eighty-one goals in 81 games is mesmerizing. Despite what you may think of the circumstances — playing in the QMJHL where offense is king combined with a 6-foot-5 manchild among other teenagers — Mantha is still the only player who scored a goal per game that season, and he's the only one who hit the 120-point plateau. He was expected to dominate, and he did. I'm not going to penalize him for doing what was expected of him.
Mantha will be 21 by the time the season starts. He will hopefully be completely healthy and be able to participate in a full training camp. There's still lots of potential. The days of being excited for a potential 50-goal scorer are done, but he's still so far from potentially being a bust. It's why Jim Devellano's comments about him being "very, very, very disappointing" were absurd. Mantha can still become a valuable contributor to the Red Wings within the next two seasons.
JJ - #3
Graham - #2
Kyle - #2
Michelle - #3
Jeff - #2
Joe - #3
Caleb - #2
Christian - #2
Prashanth - #3
Lauren - #3
Guess what? I know about 29 other NHL teams who wouldn't mind having Anthony Mantha in their system. Why? Because he's, you know, a great prospect with a ton of upside. That's why most of us have him ranked in the top-three, if not the top-two prospects in the entire organization. Rome wasn't built in one day, and neither will Mantha, or something like that. This adage sucks, so just believe in the goddang kid, would ya?