Struggling prospect Mantha scores big playoff goal in Griffins’ victory

Anthony Mantha knows now that the leap from the weakest of the three Canadian junior leagues to the AHL is enormous, and he's is still trying to establish himself as a serviceable regular.

Tom Gromak

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — As frustrating as this first professional season has been for Red Wings prospect Anthony Mantha — and it got worse recently as youngsters Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi seem to be moving ahead of him on the ladder to the NHL — the Red Wings aren’t about to give up on him.

Once the brightest in the galaxy of young players thought to be destined for stardom, Mantha has struggled mightily to establish himself as a regular in the American Hockey League after a dominant junior career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Before turning pro last summer, he produced 57 goals among 120 points in 57 regular-season games, followed by 24 goals and 38 points in 24 playoff games with Val-d’Or. The year before, he had 50 goals among 89 points.

The game there was easy for him. Maybe too easy. Despite suffering a broken leg in prospects camp last summer, he showed up in Grand Rapids figuring his time would be short in the minors. A cup of coffee in the American Hockey League with the Griffins, and he’d be on his way to stardom in Detroit.

Not so fast. Mantha enjoyed a rare moment of exhilaration when he scored a tying third-period goal tonight that helped his team salvage a 3-2 overtime victory over Utica to even their AHL Western Conference Finals playoff series at two games each. Game 5 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday in Grand Rapids.

Mantha knows now that the leap from the weakest of the three Canadian junior leagues to the AHL is enormous, and he’s is still trying to establish himself as a serviceable regular. There is no talk now of can’t-miss stardom in the league at the top of the hockey pyramid.

Not after a regular season in which Mantha scored just 15 goals and 33 points in 62 games. He had hoped to salvage his rookie year with a strong post-season.

"It’s not over," he said at the end of the regular season. "I want to show them I can still play great hockey."

That hadn’t worked out so well, either. His goal tonight was his second in 14 playoff games. He also has two assists. Even putting him on what should have been Grand Rapids’ top offensive line with Larkin and sniper Teemu Pulkkinen didn’t work the night before. In Thursday’s 4-1 loss in Game 3, Mantha lost his spot on that line when the Griffins got behind and were playing desperate, catch-up hockey.

The wrong time to be struggling with all the Detroit brass in Van Andel Arena watching the game, though he made some amends the night after.

"Anthony Mantha hasn’t had anywhere near the kind of year he’d hoped to have — and a lot of people had hoped he’d have," Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland said of his first selection (20th overall) in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.

But Holland is the last guy to give up on a 20-year-old kid still learning his trade. A 6-foot-4, 214-pound winger who showed that kind of scoring touch may need a little patience after such a big leap in competition. And Holland is nothing if not patient with his young players. In fact, he doesn’t mind in the least a player having to fight through some issues at the outset.

"I’m OK with adversity. It’s an ingredient that helps build character and determination," he said. "It helps develop players. If you can’t deal with adversity, professional hockey is going to be a tough profession."

When the season ends — in a few days or a few weeks, depending on how this series with Utica (New York) goes — the Wings will sit down with Mantha and have one of those "come-to-Jesus" talks with him.

"It’s important for him, like it is with all young players, to hit the gym and come back strong, more prepared, more determined," Holland said. "The problem some guys have is they don’t respect how good the AHL is. When you get into a pro hockey league and you’re not prepared and you get behind, it’s a long way back.

"Now the year goes on, you lose your confidence or the coach loses confidence in you and all of a sudden you’re not playing a lot of minutes, or with the best players, you start to question yourself and things start to spiral away from you. . . It’s hard to get your confidence back."

The Wings have made no secret of their expectations of Mantha — same as they are for every player they acquire with a precious first-round draft pick. Earlier this month, Senior Vice President Jim Devellano said publicly the team was disappointed, but Holland tempered that remark a bit in an interview with FOX Sports Detroit this afternoon.

"Ultimately, it’s player development," Holland said, underscoring a core value of one of professional sports’ most consistently successful franchises. "It’s about patience and the organization communicating to the player the areas we think he needs to improve on and the adjustments he needs to make — and at the same time supporting him, letting him know he’s important to the future of the Detroit Red Wings.

"We want him to be good, and when a player is struggling we’re not going to pile on. At the same time, we’re not going to be a soft landing place for him, either."

Professional sports, after all, is about competition at its highest level. If you’re not ready to compete all summer long and every day of the winter — even in hockey’s minor professional leagues, someone is going to take your job.

"I think I underachieved a little bit, obviously," Mantha said. "I would have liked to have scored 50, 60, 70 points. That was my goal at the start of the season.

"I just need to work on my strength for sure, getting quicker on my feet. And I need to keep pushing, play harder and shoot the puck more each game."

Things will second that notion in a heartbeat.