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Detroit Red Wings

Anthony Mantha poised for breakout season

DENVER, CO - MARCH 15: Detroit Red Wings right wing, Anthony Mantha (39) waits for the face-off during a regular season NHL game between the Colorado Avalanche and the visiting Detroit Red Wings on March 15, 2017, at the Pepsi Center in Denver, CO. (Photo by Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire)

Anthony Mantha is a name that Detroit Red Wings fans have been hearing since the organization drafted him in the first round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. So much so that it’s easy to forget that the forward has only appeared in 70 games at the NHL level.

He’s never completed an entire season with the Red Wings, and has instead spent most of his professional career developing with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Mantha eventually made it to Detroit last season, though, and established himself as a regular.

As such, 2017-18 will be the first time the 22-year-old has had the opportunity to play out an entire campaign with the Red Wings. That makes this an important outing for Mantha, as Detroit aims to prove pundits wrong by making it back to the playoffs after missing out last season.

Narratives from 2016-17 suggest that consistently competing hard would be a step forward for Mantha. Coach Jeff Blashill scratched him last March to send that (inconsistently applied) message to the forward, and it proved to be a learning moment for him as a player.

Sometimes bigger skaters don’t look like they are exerting much effort, and that is the case with Mantha sometimes. Still, there’s no denying that the Red Wings would love to see him utilize his 6-foot-5, 221-pound frame more effectively in the offensive zone. That’s the kind of size that can make a real difference when it comes to winning 50/50 puck battles, and represents the next evolution of Mantha’s game.

If he can’t take that next step, there’s a chance that we could see him fall into the same trap that Johan Franzen did late in his career. While Franzen always had an outstanding finishing touch — much like Mantha — he was rarely willing to use his frame to create time and space for himself and his teammates. “Mule” was still an effective forward, but that lack of physicality prevented him from reaching his ceiling.

Detroit doesn’t want to witness that happening again as Mantha skates through his first full season. Effort is a tough thing to quantify, however. What is encouraging about his development is that his scoring rates are solid, but also appear to have room for improvement.

Mantha managed a .60 points-per-game mark through his 60-game stint with the Red Wings last season, which was good for third on the team — trailing only Henrik Zetterberg (.83) and Gustav Nyquist (.63). Detroit had a lot of trouble scoring goals in 2016-17, so odds are good that his numbers would look even better on an average offensive team.

That .60 points-per-game average put him in some strong company across the league, placing him in the same neighborhood of veterans Paul Stastny, Milan Lucic and Zach Parise. Mantha clearly has a boatload of offensive talent, and it’ll just be a matter of capitalizing on his opportunities this season.

One easy way to improve his scoring rate would be to shoot a bit more. Mantha averaged 2.21 shots per contest in 2016-17, which isn’t awful, but it’s not really indicative of how strong of a finisher he could be. Again, Detroit struggled to produce much offense — Zetterberg only averaged 2.37 shots per game, for example — but there’s room for a bit of an uptick in shooting for Mantha.

He converted on 12.8 percent of his shots last season, and taking even half a shot more per game would likely result in a 20-plus goal campaign. That’s got to be the baseline for Mantha heading into this season as the Red Wings try to move away from their pop-gun offensive approach.

What’s odd is that Mantha is known as a defensive liability, but his possession numbers don’t really back that up. Playing on a line with a two-way wizard in Zetterberg helps here, but it’s worth noting that Mantha’s 7.3 corsi for percentage realitive was tops on the team among all regulars.

While improvements can always be made in all areas of play, Mantha is probably ahead of where most fans think he is in terms of defensive and neutral zone play. Maybe that’d change if he wasn’t skating with Zetterberg, but the corsi for percentage relative number indicates that good things happen for the Red Wings when he’s on the ice.

Time on the power play would be a boon for Mantha, but he’s got to earn the opportunity. Blashill didn’t use him on either of the new-look configurations during the finals months of 2016-17, so it’ll likely be up to Mantha to earn his way into one of the two net-front presence roles. Would anyone be surprised if he took that spot away from Riley Sheahan in the coming months, though?

Mantha appears to be on track for a strong season in Detroit. Shooting a bit more while utilizing his frame to earn more space out there could set him up for a great one.

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