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Red Wings' Mantha could be exception to team rule

by Tal Pinchevsky

Following one of the most prolific careers in recent Quebec Major Junior Hockey League history, Detroit Red Wings prospect Anthony Mantha, 19, could be ready to make the jump straight to the NHL.

To do that with any NHL team would be impressive. To do it with Detroit would be unheard of.

Despite an organizational philosophy that considers time in the American Hockey League a prerequisite to wearing the winged wheel, Detroit management thinks Mantha, who turns 20 on Sept. 16, could be an exception to their rule.

He'll get a chance to start impressing his future bosses this week when he joins other Red Wings prospects at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, which runs Sept. 12-16.

"Obviously I want to play for Detroit next year. I'm going to go to [training] camp and try to make the team. If I'm cut, I'll go to [AHL] Grand Rapids and show that I can dominate that league and get called up as fast as I can," Mantha said. "To go somewhere you want to go you need to see yourself there. I'm going to go to camp and try to make my place."

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The Red Wings' first-round pick (No. 20) in the 2013 NHL Draft, he led the QMJHL with 50 goals in his draft year; in fact the Val-d'Or Foreurs forward was the only draft-eligible player in Canadian junior hockey to score 50 in 2012-13. He was even better last season; in 57 games he led the league in goals (57) and points (120) and won the Michel Briere Trophy as league MVP. He also led Canada with five goals and 11 points at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. He also is No. 10 on NHL.com's Top 60 prospect rankings.

"Anthony was a guy a lot of us were watching. There are things he does that are just special," said Kris Draper, Detroit's special assistant to the general manager. "His size, his knack for scoring, his puck protection, the way he can skate. That's why he had such a dominant junior year last year."

That dominant season continued through the playoffs, where Mantha had 24 goals and 38 points in 24 games to help Val-d'Or win the league title. He saved one of his finest performances for Game 7 of the final against the Baie-Comeau Drakkar.

After the Drakkar scored three times in the third period to erase a 3-0 Val-d'Or lead, Mantha scored the championship goal with 52 seconds left in regulation. Mantha's third point of the night gave him 24 playoff goals, the highest QMJHL playoff total in five years.

The Red Wings were hoping to get a look at the 6-foot-4, 217-pound forward in the AHL last season but the QMJHL title meant a spot in the Memorial Cup, where, Mantha had one goal and three assists in four games.

"I can't be disappointed about my season," Mantha said. "Not having the experience in Grand Rapids is a little bit negative. But at the same time I got some experience in junior."

Mantha's apprenticeship in Grand Rapids may not be coming anytime soon.

"Ken [Holland, Red Wings GM] will be the first to say that goes against his managing philosophy," Draper said. "Because of what he's done in major junior he's kind of accelerated [his path] and given himself an opportunity to legitimately be a Detroit Red Wing and an opportunity to crack our top six."

Players occasionally do go directly from junior hockey to a top-six forward spot on an NHL roster. They just don't do it on the Red Wings. In fact, the last Red Wings player to go directly from junior hockey to the NHL lineup was defenseman Jiri Fisher in 1999.

That franchise philosophy paid dividends last season when the Red Wings were decimated by injuries. After being groomed in Grand Rapids by coach Jeff Blashill, key members of the AHL team arrived in Detroit and helped the Red Wings make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 23rd straight season.

Having won the Calder Cup together in 2013, players like Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan established themselves as NHL players. Mantha could do the same without playing a single AHL game.

"He'll get an opportunity, whether it's playing on the wing with [Pavel Datsyuk] or [Henrik Zetterberg]. But he's going to get an opportunity to play with one of those guys. Then it's really up to him," Draper said. "We all feel Anthony is a special player and somebody who has earned an opportunity to make the big club."

It won't be easy for Mantha after so many young players established themselves as potential NHL players last season.

"Tatar, Jurco, Sheahan, Nyquist, they all came up last year and they made their names up there. If I want to do the same thing I have to beat one of those guys out this year," Mantha said. "The team had ups and downs this year but I think they had a lot of potential on that team. I can't wait to maybe help them out."

It would be quite the accomplishment for someone who as a kid would stroll through the hallways at Bell Centre in Montreal with his grandfather, Andre Pronovost, who played in the NHL for parts of 10 seasons and won the Stanley Cup four times with the Montreal Canadiens.

"We feel that we have something special in Anthony Mantha," Draper said. "We want him to make the team. We want him to come out and light it up in training camp and preseason games. We open up against Boston and can put a guy out there who is 6-foot-4 on our first line. We would love that. The opportunity is going to be there and it's up to him to embrace it."

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