Detroit – In a strong signal of their commitment to team defense in the playoffs, the Red Wings returned Anthony Mantha to Grand Rapids Sunday, in favor of the veteran Joakim Andersson, who will fill a fourth-line checking and penalty-killing role.
“Well, he’s not playing Game 1 and it’s been about 10 days; his last game was in Toronto (April 2),” general manager Ken Holland said of Mantha, who was drafted 20th overall in the first round in 2013, and whose overall game improved this season, playing for the Griffins, before his 10-game, late season call-up to the Wings.
“He’s 21 years old. He’s 10 days without playing,” Holland said. “If we do need him in the series, he needs to be playing.”
The Griffins have a week remaining in their regular season, and Mantha likely will play in four games beginning Monday.
“We’ll see how things are going here,” Holland said. “We’d like Grand Rapids to go on a playoff run.
“He needs to play. It’s great to be on the plane, it’s great to make major-league meal money, it’s great to be in the warm weather in Tampa. But if you want to be a player, you need to play in important situations.
“And I think it’s more important to play than be on the black aces. If we need to bring him back, at least he will have been playing.”
Mantha scored two goals and assisted on a third and had a minus-6 rating in 10 games with the Wings. Jeff Blashill moved him from a top-six forward position on a line with Pavel Datsyuk, but it did not last.
But Blashill then moved Mantha to the fourth line, where players generally perform defensive roles. Blashill said he preferred the veteran forward Brad Richards on the line with Datsyuk because of his better all-around game, including defense.
“If he’s going to play eight minutes, what’s the use of it?” Holland said of Mantha’s situation on the roster.
“Anthony Mantha was a spare part in the (AHL) Calder Cup playoffs a year ago. Why does anyone think he is going to be the answer in Detroit?”
Having Andersson, said Blashill after Saturday’s loss in New York, adds another quality penalty killer.
“We needed to make sure we had enough penalty killers on the bench,” Blashill said. “I thought (Tomas) Jurco played good the last couple of games, but when you don’t play on either specialty team, there’s only so much you can do.
“Having Andy in there, not only is he another penalty killer, but it gives me the choice between him and AA (Andreas Athanasiou). AA is a good killer but he doesn’t win faceoffs. Andy wins lots of faceoffs, so it gave me a one-two punch of an extra killer if we needed it.”
Despite losing the final two games of the regular season to Boston and the Rangers, Blashill likes the direction of his team.
“I still think we've got another level,” Blashill said. “One thing I know for sure about playoffs is it's a new year. Everybody starts 0-0 and everybody's so tight in the NHL, let's see what happens in Game 1 and you go from there.
“Confidence can be gained as you go through the playoffs. I saw that my first year in Grand Rapids; we gained confidence as the playoffs went along. We had a great team by the end. I like a lot of what we're doing, let's keep getting better here.”
Dylan Larkin became only the sixth first-year player in Red Wings’ team history to lead the team in goals (23).
“There's two things you need to do to be in that spot,” Blashill said. “One is ability and drive, and he has those things, and two is opportunity; he certainly got lots of that, as well.
“We’re going to need Dylan to be a top-line player for us through the playoffs, not be a 19-year-old kid. He seems to embrace those opportunities, so I look forward to seeing him play in the playoffs.”
Ted Kulfan contributed to this report.