TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- There was a time when Detroit Red Wings prospect Anthony Mantha was being considered as a potential fit alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.
It all changed Sept. 15, 2014, when Mantha, a first-round pick (No. 20) in the 2013 NHL Draft, sustained a fractured right tibia at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament. At the time of his injury, which sidelined him all of training camp in 2014, he was leading Red Wings prospects in goals, points and shots on goal.
Mantha missed two months before finally making his professional debut with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League on Nov. 14, 2014. He struggled upon his return, scoring 15 goals and 33 points in 62 games. The lack of offensive production didn't sit well with Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano, who expressed with the local media his disappointment in Mantha's performance.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland recently said he thinks it will be a struggle for Mantha to make the team and that he needs to come in and take a job. Mantha's name was also involved in trade rumors. To his credit, the 6-foot-5, 205-pound left-hand shot has continued to battle in an attempt to re-establish himself as a potential roster fit.
That path started this week at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, where he has produced two goals in three games.
"I had ups and downs last year and I just have to leave it behind; now it's a fresh start and I need to concentrate on having a good tournament and having a good camp, great exhibition games and then go from there," Mantha said. "I've learned a lot in the past two years when I was at the top and when I was at the bottom. I'm kind of trying to figure out my way through, so this year I want to stay right in the middle and play my game."
It seems an eternity ago Mantha, who turns 21 on Wednesday, was named the 2013-14 Canadian Hockey League player of the year after scoring 57 goals and 120 points in 57 games as an alternate captain for the Val-d'Or Foreurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"People forget he was leading the [Traverse City tournament] in scoring last year and he had the unfortunate injury in that last game," Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said.
Blashill, who coached Mantha at the Traverse City tournament for three years and at Grand Rapids last season, has had several conversations with the Quebec native.
"First off, he needs to score goals because that's what he's done in his career better than other people," Blashill said. "He and I talked a lot about the development process at this level and the difference between maybe what he could do in junior and what he'd have to do in the NHL. You have to skate to get the puck and skate when you have the puck. Those are two things that might sound simple, but will help him.
"In the end, he'll have to score goals, and I think the goals he's scored in Traverse City is a step in the right direction."
Mantha said he hasn't lost his confidence and is determined to get back on track.
"Confidence is a huge thing; during the season you have ups and downs, but you always need to come back to your confidence," he said. "You can't think about what you're doing on the ice but react. That's the main point."
Jiri Fischer, Detroit's director of player development, can sense Mantha is trying his best to maintain his confidence and improve areas of his game.
"Confidence is the hardest thing to keep, and learning to love to battle and how to outplay someone is essential in order to play [in the NHL]," Fischer said. "When he played junior, nobody could separate him from the puck down low. Now he's learning how to do that at the men's game playing against guys the same size, and it's not easy. It's a learning experience.
"But the thing is we believe in Anthony and we're excited about his future."
Mantha, who has been criticized at times for being too inconsistent, realizes he needs to treat each opportunity he gets as his last.
"It's my defense zone and one-on-one battles; competing every day," Mantha said. "That's the message [the coaches] told me last year. That's the message I trained with this summer in order to get better."
It's likely Mantha will spend the entire year in Grand Rapids in order to gain a better understanding of the pro game under the tutelage of coach Todd Nelson, who is serving as coach of the Red Wings prospects this week.
"The one thing he'll have to work at in order to play at the NHL level is being more consistent with his intensity and play at a high tempo," Nelson said. "It can't be one game and then take a game off."
Nelson does like the fact Mantha is taking all the constructive criticism in stride. He has a genuine burning desire to become a better player.
"All these players are hungry to learn information on how to get [to the NHL]," Nelson said. "It's up to the coach to present it in a way that gets through to them. I'm obviously getting to know these players and I have to figure out which players I have to lean on and which players I have to pat on the back. But Anthony has been receptive."