Krupa: From boy to man — Wings' Mantha on the rise

Gregg Krupa, The Detroit News

Detroit — He already is distinguishable by the way he moves on the ice.

You can tell, without benefit of number or sight of face, that he is Anthony Mantha.

There is the size, of course. Last season, he was tall. Now, he is big and tall. The upper body went from kid to man, thickened by a dietary regimen he described as eating “maybe seven or eight times a day.”

He is huge.

He also showed, while creating a great scoring chance against the Sabres in the first 15 seconds of overtime Wednesday, he can pump those long legs like a sprinter.

“I did see a little opening, so I tried to just rush down,” he said, disappointed not to have scored because of a great save by Robin Lehner.

But the sprinting is of a curious sort.

His speed deceives because of the stride.

It looks slow. But it is not, because it is so long. Like a fast, larger than average thoroughbred, slightly fewer paces covering appreciably more ground gets him there quicker.

While size suggests ruggedness, Mantha will not be a power forward in the style of Brendan Shanahan.

He has a shot, as his under-the-crossbar, near-the-post goal over the considerable Cory Schneider of the Devils showed Friday night.

But he will not bang or intimidate much — although he did grab Max Pacioretty by the collar Saturday during some rambunctiousness with the Canadiens, temporarily depriving the high-scoring Montreal captain of his motor skills and balance.

The worst mistake fans could make is to demand or even expect a tough guy role from Mantha, as Bruins fans did with Joe Thornton in Boston in the 1990s.

Like Thornton, Mantha is large and strapping. But finesse and offense are far more important elements of his game, just like Thornton, with his 975 assists — nearly 700 of which came after the Bruins cavalierly dispatched him.

Helping explain Mantha’s swift footwork is that for a big man he appears a bit light on his feet. A good knock can get him out of kilter, so better to avoid defenders than warding them off while lining up shots.

He may be capable of engaging effectively, a requirement of his net-front presence. But his better offense is on the move or free.

It is just another part of the Red Wings determination to play with pronounced pace.

Better late than never

The difference between Mantha’s first seven games this season and his 10 last suggests that Ken Holland and the Red Wings were shrewd to keep Mantha in Grand Rapids until the weight was on and the bit more in his teeth.

From the assertion of Jim Devellano in the spring of 2015 that Mantha had disappointed to that juncture, to Holland’s evaluation that Mantha had played a comparatively small role in the Griffins 2015 playoff run, the brass was factual. They also were suggesting the need for the player to improve before he could substantially impact the NHL club.

And the simple fact is Mantha looks capable of significant contributions, and he did not with consistency, albeit in short time, last year.

While praising the Wings brass these days for anything is only occasionally warranted, and fraught with the risk of targeting on social media, the fact of the matter is Holland and Devellano were right about Mantha’s performance and wise to make it plain to the player, perhaps even in publicly prominent ways.

And Jeff Blashill gets the primary assist for knowing the player well enough to decide when he could play regularly with Henrik Zetterberg and supply puck retrieval and possession skills, which are as intrinsic to Mantha’s role as his ample finishing skills.

It is difficult to see how or why the Red Wings would ever return Mantha to the AHL, amid some evidence of his potential to be the real deal and two full seasons of forbearing preparation. It clearly was not Mantha’s preference to toil in Grand Rapids. Nor should it have been.

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He is being paid to think he should be playing against the Canadiens on a Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena.

Zetterberg and Mantha led the Red Wings with 26 shifts Saturday. On a respectable portion of them, Mantha affected play.

Around the 13-minute mark of the second period, when he and Dylan Larkin flew over the blue line together, with the Canadiens defense a bit jumpy at the onslaught of speed, one could be forgiven for getting ahead of oneself and imagining the potential salary cap issues, going forward.

Star in the making

What is clear is the franchise needs, and fans yearn for, the replacements for Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, and the heirs to the Wings Stanley Cup mantle secured by Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman and Niklas Lidstrom and their bands of brothers.

It remains, of course, to be determined if Mantha and Larkin fill the bill, and if Andreas Athanasiou will vie for a transcendent starring role.

But banish the suggestion the Red Wings do not have the early 20-year-olds, similar to those cropping up around the NHL to propel other teams.

They are here. They are good. Holland has them up, and Blashill is playing them.

It is way early. But Mantha’s three goals in seven games and current performance suggest that, like Larkin, he might someday be key to the success of a new generation of Wings.

Before this season, it was a hope amid growing pains.

Now, it is becoming apparent that Mantha’s potential is no longer merely playing in the NHL, but perhaps starring.

Time will tell, but Mantha is expelling doubt.