Traverse City — The talk about whether Anthony Mantha is headed back to Grand Rapids or starting the season with the Red Wings, that’s all gone.
The minor leagues are far gone now. Mantha, 23, knows he’s an NHL player and there’s a certain calmness and confidence around him as training camp ended Monday.
Finally given a full-time opportunity last season after being promoted from Grand Rapids, Mantha scored 17 goals and looked utterly capable of scoring more in the years ahead.
“There’s a little stress that’s gone from last year, for sure,” Mantha said. “Last year I came here and I wanted to make the team off the start.”
Mantha went down to Grand Rapids to begin last season and dominated the AHL, forging a call-up to a Red Wings team that wasn’t scoring goals.
It’s not like there weren't hiccups along the way.
There were times Mantha didn’t consistently show the work ethic, or willingness to skate hard, or be engaged, as is necessary for an NHL player, forcing coach Jeff Blashill to keep Mantha from the lineup.
But Mantha appears to have learned and wants to take that education into this season.
“I did a pretty good job last year but I need to keep going that way. It’s still a learning curve,” Mantha said. “It was a great learning process. I need to get coach Blashill to have confidence in me in the (defensive) zone when I have the puck, and when I don’t have the puck. “
Blashill feels Mantha has matured as any young person would in early 20s, and is ready to take another big step in his NHL career.
“First of all, he’s always been an excellent person,” Blashill said. “He’s an excellent human being who wants to be a really good hockey player. He’s a somewhat easygoing guy, he’s got a smile on his face most day. But he wants to be a good hockey player.
“I just think it’s all habits. When you’re able to play and have success the way he had in major junior (hockey) without really moving your feet, why would move them when you’ve had success? Until you kind of get to the next level where all of a sudden maybe you don’t have that same level of success, it’s hard to make those changes.
“Habits are hard to change. They don’t change overnight. It’s been a process but it’s been a good process. That’s what it’s about for most guys.”
One thing that bothered Mantha last season was being prone to goal-scoring slumps, something that rarely occurred in juniors or in the minor leagues.
Mantha is striving for more consistency, and realizes it could be a big payoff, given he’s a restricted free agent next summer.
“I don’t want to have a slump this year,” Mantha said. “I had a great first half once I got called up. I had a little slump when I got healthy scratched two games, then I just had to get my game going again.
“This year I just want to play the whole year like I started last year. I want to have the best year I could. This year’s my contract year. I also need to focus on that. I just want to be a good player in general and try to help the team.”
Blashill has Mantha and Justin Abdelkader on the wings between Dylan Larkin to open the season.
“Larkin in the middle has so much speed,” Mantha said. “Abby being on the left and myself on the right, we could open so much room for Larks and win our one-on-one battles in the corners.”
Ironically, the player that ended Mantha’s season prematurely last season is now a Red Wing.
Luke Witkowski and Mantha got into a fight in late March when the Red Wings played Tampa, and Mantha broke a finger.
The Red Wings signed Witkowski (Holland/Western Michigan) in the summer.
Witkowski laughed early in training camp that he felt Mantha was shooting pucks at him during a drill.
“I laughed about it,” Mantha said of Witkowski’s joking. “The first thing is he’s now a teammate and what happened last year happened last year. It’s over. I was laughing about it when I saw on Twitter what he said, that I was shooting for his fingers there. It’s fun now.”