Detroit — Maybe five or 10 years from now, if Anthony Mantha is a huge star in the the NHL, it will be easy to point to one of the transformational moments in his career.
Both Mantha and coach Jeff Blashill singled out a January game in New Jersey, after a morning skate, when Blashill showed two sets of videos to his young player.
One of them had Mantha motoring around the ice, engaged, being an impactful player. The other video, not so much.
“There was a big difference,” Mantha said after this season ended.
When Mantha, 23, signed a two-year contract contract in mid-July, worth $6.6 million, it was with the belief he can do more.
Mantha will still be a restricted free agent in two years, and he is confident the mild success he’s had his first two seasons — Mantha led the Wings with 24 goals last season — can build, and he’ll be able to land a larger, long-term contract after this contract concludes.
“I want to be a big-impact player on this team,” Mantha said. “This year, I’ve made strides. (But) I don’t think I’ve reached my full potential yet.”
There have been several instances over the last two seasons where Blashill has either scratched Mantha from the lineup, benched him during a game, or the two have had conversations where Blashill has demanded more out of Mantha.
As videos showed, when Mantha is engaged, he’s a completely different player.
Blashill wants to see Mantha continue to push, and strive for stardom.
“With Anthony, I just want him to continue to see that there’s more there in terms of pushing himself beyond his comfort level,” said Blashill, who suggested Mantha take up boxing this summer to aid in Mantha’s aggression and conditioning. “I’m hoping that summer training can push himself beyond his comfort level.
“If he comes back and has the same year next year that he had this year, it’s not good enough. We need guys to make significant steps. There were teams in this league that were out (of the playoffs) and this year (were) in, and if you look at it, certain individual players made real significant steps.
“That’s what we need from guys that have that biggest area of growth.”
Blashill has called the New Jersey meeting a “heart-to-heart” and viewed it as an opportunity for Mantha to realize the player he could become.
“I’ve had Anthony a long time, it’s not like this is just a new growth process,” Blashill said. “Those buttons can change as people mature. I was trying, with Anthony, to make sure he understands what it’s going to take to make him the very best player he can be.
“We’ve shown him comparable clips, clips when he’s doing it right and clips when he’s not doing it right. One thing he said to me was ‘Can you show me what you’re talking about?’ I said ‘Absolutely.' So we’ve tried to do that on a regular basis.
“A player gets to a realization where they understand what you’re trying to do is get the very best out of them. You’re not picking on them. When they understand that, then there can be real growth.”
Mantha was quick to acknowledge he didn’t reach personal milestones he had for himself. But Mantha also felt this past season was a success because of what he learned to become a consistent, successful NHL player.
“I didn’t reach the goals I wanted personally, and as a team we didn’t reach them,” Mantha said. “But in general, it’s been a big learning year for me and I took a step forward. It’s a learning process for everyone around here.
“Blash said he learned and he keeps learning. All the young players need to step up next year.”
General manager Ken Holland felt Mantha learned from the tough love shown from the coaching staff, and took a major step forward in his career.
“The video work the coaching staff does with him, all the players on a regular basis, challenging him, and sometimes you pull the ice time back, sometimes you play them more when they’re really going good,” Mantha said. “Watching the veterans in the room, (it’s) all added up to where he is today.
“He had a good year, (but) we need him to take a step, he’s got that potential, that ability to take that next step. Once you play 100 games (in the NHL) you get a good idea what this league is all about. He’s a got a good idea what he needs to do in the summer to take his game to another level.”
Mantha scored 81 goals in 81 games (including playoffs) in his final junior season, a far different level of hockey.
“He scored lots of goals off the rush, he’d come down and shoot the puck into the net,” Holland said. “That’s not this league. There are guys who score 40, 40-plus, but it’s a hard league. He went to the American League and he’s learned to cycle more, learned to be heavier on the puck, learned to compete harder.
“When you turn the puck over in the NHL in the offensive zone you’re usually going back to your defensive zone to do D-zone coverage. They’re not giving it back to you. In junior or college (hockey), you might make mistakes they give back to you. He’s learned to protect the puck, to respect the opposition.
“It’s ultimately why he had 24 goals and 48 points.”