Red Wings call on Mantha to rescue their playoff drive

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Anthony Mantha has skated in exhibitions, but will make his NHL debut tonight.

Grand Rapids — Walking in the lobby of Griff’s Ice House, which serves as the makeshift dressing room at the occasional practice rink for the Griffins, Anthony Mantha looked even bigger.

His young face and large frame have thickened.

Mantha seemed more self-assured than last season with the Red Wings American Hockey League affiliate, his first as a professional, or even last autumn, early in his second.

With a beaming smile, the 6-foot-4, 214-pound 21-year-old offered a hearty handshake and sat down on a spectator’s bench last week eager to discuss his young career and intention to play the NHL.

Mantha could not have known the day was nearly upon him.

“I think this year’s going way better than last year, if only for the fact that I’m more consistent than last year,” he said. “I learned a lot last year and put it in my game this year.

“So, it’s some big changes.”

On Monday, after a disappointing 1-0 loss to the lowly Maple Leafs — who played with nine rookies on their roster and one defenseman older than 24 — the Red Wings decided they needed more scoring. They summoned Mantha to play in the most important game of the season so far, against the Flyers in Philadelphia tonight.

Mantha has arrived in the NHL. To hear him and his coach in Grand Rapids, Todd Nelson, talk about it, the time might well be right.

In his first season, Mantha scored 15 goals and assisted on 18 in 62 games.

It was a sharp contrast to his gaudy numbers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), where he toiled when the Wings selected him in the first round of the 2013 draft, 20th overall.

To say Mantha was prolific in juniors understates the point.

In 2012-13, his final season with the Val D’Or Foreurs (Drillers), his 57 goals and 63 assists for 120 points came in 57 games. Mantha added 24 goals and 14 assists in 24 playoff games.

But for some players in juniors, achievement arrives without key ingredients for success in the NHL, like hard skating away from the puck, firm resolve in battle and a disciplined approach to details on offense and defense.

At the end of last season, Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano proclaimed Mantha a disappointment.

Gaining consistency

He is better now.

This season, Mantha’s 21 goals and 24 points have come in 56 games — six more goals and six more assists in six fewer regular-season games. And he is moving his feet and skating far better, especially without the puck.

Mantha’s lessons learned in two seasons after the jump from the QMJHL to the AHL will have to support him as he jumps to the NHL.

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“I’ve liked his season,” Nelson said. “I think early on we were working on consistency with him moving his feet throughout the game, skating well, hard on the forecheck, using his speed to drive wide on defenders.

“We wanted to see that, and we’d seen it in spurts in a game. We wanted to see it for a full game and we wanted to see it in games in succession.

“And I think he’s improved quite a bit.

“Now, we’re starting to see him pressure guys on the back-check, strip pucks and go the other way,” said Nelson, who coached 51 games for the Oilers last season before the Red Wings hired him to coach their AHL affiliate.

“I think he’s stronger down low in the corners than he was at the start of the year, where he’s hanging on to it and forcing teams to take the puck off him. And he’s doing a better job of protecting it.

“Before, he was a bit loose with the puck and exposed it, and the play would die with him. But now, he’s keeping plays alive.

“I like where he’s at right now.”

So does Mantha.

“I’m more competitive, and I think that’s the best thing that I changed since last year,” he said.

Of movement away from the puck, Mantha said, “It’s a learning process. That’s what I learned last year, and that’s what I’m still trying to do this year, obviously, is to keep moving your feet in every zone, keep moving when you don’t have the puck.

“It’s just those little details that you need to focus on.”

Hat trick helps

Mantha’s performance was improved even before Feb. 17. But on that night, a hat trick and an assist in a victory over Milwaukee provided a welcome gauge.

“It feels good to have your first pro hat trick,” he said. “And, obviously, it takes a little pressure off me and you feel more confident after that game.”

Anthony Mantha

Asked about the future, Mantha said he was looking forward to the AHL playoffs, a good offseason of work, and spoke of his desire to make the Red Wings roster in training camp.

But now Mantha is asked to help secure the 25th consecutive playoff appearance for the Red Wings, beginning against the Flyers, who trail the Wings by three points — but have two games in hand.

Mantha’s grandfather, Andre Pronovost, won four Stanley Cups with the Canadiens in the 1950s, and played 120 games for the Red Wings from 1962-65. Mantha remembers skating as a little boy on Sunday afternoons with his grandfather.

Pronovost provided more support recently.

“He has his little three words, in French, that he wanted me to keep doing,” Mantha said. “We focused on those three words last year.

“It just something that, every time I’m not having a good game, I just need to use those three words and refocus my head and it should be better after that.

The French words are “talent,” which means the same thing in English; “ténacité,” or tenacity; and “travail,” or work.

“Talent,” Mantha clearly has.

The Red Wings like his future well enough now to test his “ténacité” and “travail.”

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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