DETROIT – A few months ago, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill took a trip to Cleveland to watch his former minor-league team and to evaluate some of the club’s young prospects playing in the American Hockey League.
The takeaway that evening for Blashill was that Anthony Mantha was close, but maybe not close enough, to joining the former Griffins’ coach in NHL.
“I thought he played well,” Blashill said on Dec. 17, the day after the Griffins played Erie. “I like the fact that he did a good job skating away from the puck, to get the puck or to track back. And I thought he won battles. I think if Anthony Mantha does those things he’s gonna be a real good NHL player in time. He looks like an NHL guy with his size and his skill set. He’s just gotta continue to grow as a hockey player. I think he’s gaining confidence. I think we have to be very careful to make sure he stays in a position where he can continue to gain confidence.”
Mantha has been in a good position all season, and now it appears he’s ready to make his much-anticipated NHL debut when he joins the Red Wings’ lineup Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Arena.
He will be the fourth prospect to make his debut with the Red Wings this season. The others were Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou and Tomas Nosek.
The 21-year-old has been the Griffins’ best player for the last month, scoring seven goals in 13 games. He’s third in team scoring with 21 goals, 24 assists and a plus-18 rating in 56 AHL games.
The former first-round draft pick, selected No. 20 overall by the Red Wings in 2013, has been on a hot streak lately. The second-year pro – a grandson of four-time Stanley Cup winner Andre Pronovost – has three goals and six points in an active three-game point streak, while producing 16 points, including three game-winning goals, over the Griffins’ last 13 games.
There was some speculation at the start of last season that Mantha was ready to make the jump from juniors to the NHL. But a fractured right tibia suffered in a NHL prospects tournament game in Traverse City delayed his pro debut and he never seemed to get on track once he joined the Griffins later in the 2014-15 season.
While development has been slow to come, Mantha seems to have turned a corner and will get his chance with the Wings on Tuesday. Who he plays with and on what line, and whether or not he’ll get specialty team time on the power play or penalty kill, will be sorted out by Blashill at the team’s morning skate on Tuesday.
Last month, with Wings general manager Ken Holland and his assistant Ryan Martin in attendance, Mantha collected his first pro hat trick, and four-point night in a win over Milwaukee. Blashill heard glowing reports of the prospect’s performance but at the time the coach wasn’t convinced Mantha was prepared to beat out any of the Wings’ top-six forwards.
“For me personally, we’d have to be convinced he could beat out a Tats or Larkin or Zetterberg or Abdelkader and be in a situation where he was on one of those top two lines and be able to beat those guys out,” Blashill said last month. “I got a line with Sheahan, Glendening and Helm that’s been great since we put them together. They do a great job of creating O-zone time and energy, playing against the other team’s best lines, so now you’re down to another line that’s going to play seven minutes if you’re not on specialty teams. So again that to me doesn’t make any sense to put (Mantha) in that situation when he’s finally starting to gain confidence. I watched him lose his confidence last year. I know how that goes in the American League, you got to really continue to make sure you put people in the right spot to continue to build their confidence. So unless we’re convinced he’s going to beat one of those guys out in those top two lines I don’t see a scenario where that happens.”
But with the Wings clinging to the second wild card in the Eastern Conference playoff race, and desperate for scoring, Mantha, who is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence right now, just might be the answer when he becomes the 900th all-time in franchise history to don a Red Wings’ sweater.
Looks like the Wings think Mantha is ready for his big role.