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Krupa: Mantha sees promising season come to abrupt halt

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Anthony Mantha

Detroit — Anthony Mantha’s season ended, and perhaps the only disappointing thing about his performance is the busted finger he picked up in a fight with the Lightning’s Luke Witkowski Thursday means bidding an early adieu.

It halts his request for 20 goals and keeps him out of the last game at Joe Louis Arena, including a Saturday night game April 8 against his hometown team, the Canadiens

For Witkowski, fisticuffs are an essential attribute, as 24 fights in three seasons in the AHL suggest.

Mantha does not do it much, but more this season than ever before, going back to juniors.

His five fights evidence three things. The first two, like a lot about Mantha’s first full season, are good.

Mantha wants to be tough for his teammates and himself, so that opponents do not run over them on the ice.

He is also trying to do all he can to prove himself, after an injury set back his early development in Grand Rapids and his occasional tendency to drift gave rise to some disappointment.

Mantha showed plenty of willingness to please all season long. Although, on occasion, some of the bad habits seeped back in.

The third aspect of his fighting is part of Mantha’s greater affliction. His inexperience.

He could probably use a little better judgment in deciding when and how often to engage in fisticuffs.

That said, Witkowski allowed him little alternative. There was a sense that it might have been premeditated payback for last Friday, against the Lightning in Detroit, when Mantha delivered to extra punches to Gregg McKegg’s head, while he was on the ground with Mantha on top.

Red Wings’ Mantha gains respect for answering the bell

Fighting McKegg was far more optional, and continuing a fight against a player prone and largely defenseless not only violates “the code,” it earned Mantha a 10-minute misconduct.

But, especially with Steve Ott and Brendan Smith gone at the trade deadline, the fact that Mantha wanted to stand up for himself and his teammates is commendable, and just one of many encouraging things about his first full season in the NHL.

Better judgment is likely to come.

Moreover, one hopes the Red Wings find perhaps a couple of players in the offseason for whom fighting is a higher calling, and who make the risk of injury to an important scorer, like Mantha, less costly to the team.

And make no mistake, Mantha is now one of the Red Wings’ prime offensive threats.

His performance this season proved it.

His 17 goals in 60 games is on pace for 24 goals in 82 games.

All but one came during even strength, meaning if he played on the power play regularly and it every got going, his goals might increase considerably.

The catalyst

And the advanced statistics support what the eyes see: When Mantha is on the ice, the Red Wings are more likely to launch their attack and play in the offensive zone.

The future may well be a string of good offensive seasons, perhaps strong enough that Mantha is a singular presence in the Red Wings’ lineup.

For a franchise desperately in need of stars, after the serial loss of so many who helped the win Stanley Cups, Mantha not only showed enormous promise this season, he fulfilled enough of it to make his ultimate success seem far more likely than a year ago.

He even showed promise when the going got tough.

Disappointed at not seeing his name in the lineup after some games he left less than fully cultivated, Mantha excelled at what is in sport, no less than in life, a critical task: making a negative a positive.

He said he went and saw Jeff Blashill. He received his explanation.

Mantha doubtlessly disapproved. Any young NHL player, let alone Anthony Mantha, thinks he should play.

But if there was a pout, it not in public.

He said understood his circumstances. In interviews, he explained them. He was respectful, not only of the decision, his coach and the organization, but himself.

He was straight-forward.

Mantha acted as though he has been around the NHL for years. In effect, he has been.

Grandpa Andre Pronovost won the Stanley Cup four times with Canadiens (1956-57, 1957-58, 1958-59, and 1959-60).

After 70 games around Mantha and some visits to the dressing rooms in Grand Rapids and Traverse City, a sense one gets from him is that all of this is a bit in his blood, this NHL stuff.

He may understand by instinct and intelligence. But he also understands because has been told by those who know, from an early age.

When Mantha came back, he had no points and only five shots in the first four game

Message received

The next game, in Montreal, had seven shots and scored the winning goal.

Two games later, he had two goals against the Hurricanes. On some shifts, he looked dominant.

That is the kind of player, it would seem, Mantha can be. The sort of offensive weapon that only requires loading.

So, give him the puck, certainly.

But, perhaps more importantly, Mantha needs to go get it himself. He also needs to do all he can to help make sure he and his mates are not skating long without it. And when they have it, and he does not does not, he needs to be available for it and in scoring position.

It all requires strong intention and movement.

And so it was not only encouraging that he played like that, again, against Carolina, but his words afterwards offered hope that Mantha well understands this is the singular challenge of his early career.

“Oh, for sure, that the key to my game. If I do skate, I have a lot of O-zone (time) with my line mates,” Mantha said. “It just makes huge difference in my own game.

“I need to be ready mentally and physically to bring it every night.

“That’s probably the key to my success, if I could say, right now.”

The young man is not oblivious.

Mantha knows. The problem is the doing-it-all-the-time part, the constancy of intention and effort.

But, truth be told, sometimes the big power forwards can appear a little aimless, a little sluggish.

The next time some Red Wings fans rail against Blashill limiting Mantha’s time on ice, or scratching him while healthy, it might help to conjure thoughts of Scotty Bowman and Brendan Shanahan.

Amid reminisces after his retirement, Bowman said, “I wasn’t always sure I had Brendan’s attention.”

He said it with a fatherly smile.

“They always say you’re toughest on the one’s you love,” Shanahan said, during one of his last public appearances as a player with his coach.

“Well, Scotty, you must have really loved me!”

There is no saying, yet, that Mantha will approach Shanahan’s success.

But it looks like there is some chance.