The old adage that you cannot teach size may be true, but Rangers prospect Ryan Mantha is still learning how to play with it.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound blueliner told BlueshirtsUnited.com that picking his spots on when to use that big frame is something he continues to work on during his second season with the Niagara IceDogs of the Ontario Hockey League.
"As a bigger guy, I'm always trying to get faster and quicker, battles in corners and trying to move laterally," Mantha said in a recent phone interview. "Trying to push the pace and take control of the game. I think I can be a big asset out there on the ice. I'm trying to learn and choose the right times when to use my force, I guess you can say."
It's a balancing act according to the 19-year-old, whom the Rangers selected in the fourth-round, 104th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft. Mantha wants to play physical, but also knows what happens in a league as good as the OHL when you get caught out of position trying to land that big hit.
"That's the thing I'm working on, keeping the consistent physical play," said Mantha, who has five goals and 13 assists for 18 points in 41 games this season for Niagara. "The last month I've been working with my coaches on when the right time is and trying to find the right time [to make a hit]. It's something I'm trying to work on and still have that [physical] presence. I'm 6-foot-5, 225 [pounds] — I can't hide out there.
[But] at this pace of the game now, it's a lot harder to do what you could do when you're younger," Mantha added. "If I go running at [Erie's Dylan] Strome, he'll slip by me. It's about the right time to hit and when to go forward with it."
There's one coach and former player in the Rangers' organization who made a career out of being a big, physical defenseman: Jeff Beukeboom.
Mantha said he learned a lot from playing under Beukeboom in September's Traverse City Tournament, and has envisioned the benefits playing under him for a full season would be.
"It'd be cool," he said. "Even during that week, [the coaches] treat you exactly how you'd be treated [in the NHL]. You have video before the games, things as a team, just the little things after a shift" that Beukeboom would pass onto the prospects on the bench. "Just little tips that he was showing us in Traverse City has helped me at the start of my year here."
Beukeboom said he expressed to Mantha the need to be physical, but not having to get out of position to finish a check.
"I just expressed to him for him to be a quality prospect and a pro, he has to be physical," Beukeboom said. "Not running guys over physical, but going into the corners and competing and I thought that was one thing I pointed out to him both years [in Traverse City]. Just showed him some stuff positionally or stick on puck. Just all the basic things that I would advise most defensemen."
Over the past decade, the Rangers have been one of the best teams in the NHL at developing defensemen from within the organization, from Dan Girardi and Marc Staal nearly a decade ago, through captain Ryan McDonagh five years ago down through current prospects Brady Skjei and Ryan Graves, defense has been the foundation of the Blueshirts following the 2005 work stoppage.
For Mantha, that track record is something that gives him confidence as a young blueliner making his journey through junior hockey and into the pro ranks.
"They're all great players," Mantha said. "Even Brady, Ryan and Dylan [McIlrath]. They've all gone through what I'm going through right now. It's good to see guys like that rewarded."
Mantha said he does not model his game after a specific player, but rather tries to add elements of the game's best to his repertoire. While he named strengths of Keith Yandle and P.K. Subban, he also mentioned things he's learned from Skjei and Graves first hand.
"Ryan, the way he plays, that's what I try to add to my game and the consistency I try to add to my game," he said of Graves. "He's a big boy too so I watch when he chooses [to join the rush] and when he is physical.
"Skjei, with how he's in a tight spot how he comes out with the puck and his mobility," Mantha continued. "I try and learn from that. Watching players and seeing how they do their business. That's how you learn to add it to yours."
By Matt Calamia