Anthony Mantha is the most talked about Red Wings prospect in over 10 years. He had a breakout year scoring 81 goals in as many games in the QMJHL and is going to turn pro next year. The only question for the fans: Will he be in the AHL or the NHL. There seems to be three schools of thought on this topic. The first one is that Mantha will play the entire year with the Red Wings. The second is that Mantha will need a year of development in Grand Rapids. The third is that Ken Holland will bury him in the minors despite his talent level clearly being NHL caliber. We can confidently throw away the third school of thought because as we know, Ken Holland is an intelligent guy and does what it takes to win. The argument of whether Mantha is good enough to play in the NHL is not one that I am going to make. I don’t know yet. I need to see him play against more talented competition. Once training camp starts then we can have that conversation. This article is strictly going to be about logistics. Where are the roster spots coming from and what is open and what do the lines look like as far as forwards are concerned. The following chart is how I project the lines if every player is healthy at the beginning of the year.
Let’s take this line by line here. The first line has two spots already filled up, with Datsyuk and Zetterberg. The only way this gets changed is if Weiss can’t play and for the sake of this argument I am going to assume he is healthy. The third spot is between Mantha and Abdelkader. These two players play entirely different games. Mantha adds finish to a duo of player makers, however Mantha will likely be overpowered in the NHL on the defensive side of the puck, but may make up for it with increased offensive production. Abdelkader adds great balance to this line, he’s the “piano mover” and adds a lot of grit and allows for these two guys to work in space. Since Abdelkader occupies the front of the net, it allows for Datsyuk and Zetterberg to occupy the face-off circles and work in space. Adbelkader has played this role for two years and has done a really good job doing it.
The second line only gets complicated if Alfredsson retires. If he retires, then it will either be Mantha or Nyquist on that line. I would give the nod to Nyquist there due to experience and based off his performance last year, he is probably the first guy who gets a look at the top 6 in the fall. However, if Mantha really impresses, then it’s possible that he keeps Nyquist on the third line.
The third line only gets complicated if Nyquist moves up the second line to fill up Alfredsson’s vacated spot. If Nyquist moves up to the second line, expect Jurco to grab his spot. If not, then Jurco returns to Grand Rapids.
The fourth line is where this gets kind of murky. If Mantha doesn’t make the team then it’s pretty clear, Miller and Helm centered by Glendening. I placed Helm on the wing instead of Glendening because Helm’s speed is more dangerous when he can be isolated on the wing and with Glendening being a defense first guy, his only real value is at center where he can impact the play more than anyone else. However, if Mantha grabs the first line spot, then the fourth line changes its identity. Abdelkader would get slotted there and Glendening would be the likely scratch there. It’s at this point that you are probably thinking, “wait, didn’t you just write a piece crowning Glendening as a great defensive player?” That’s true, I did. However, with a fourth line of Abdelkader, Miller, and Helm, you wouldn’t need defense so much as you’d look for scoring production. With a healthy Datsyuk and Zetterberg you don’t need a shutdown fourth line because your first line can shutdown the opposition’s star players while still producing offense. Now we get to another problem, I do not trust Anthony Mantha to play defense against any other first line competition in the NHL. He is not a top six NHL forward yet. I am going to assume that Mantha can slot in the third line playing against third line competition and 3rd pairing defense and play well with Sheahan and either Tatar or Nyquist. However, I have huge reservations about his ability to play against top line defensive competition.
One part of the NHL transition that gets constantly overlooked is that these players are not only adjusting to playing NHL level competition, but they are also adjusting to playing within a system. Junior teams generally don’t play complex systems, if they have one at all. One of the advantages of playing in the AHL first is that it allows Mantha to learn the Wings system as he gets used to the bigger and faster game of the AHL compared to the QMJHL. Learning and fitting into a system can be as much of a problem for a player’s performance as talent level. In conversations I have had with AHL film scouts they attribute development and stagnation to a large degree with system adaptation. They also cite that the reason that players can be labeled as busts is a players inability to mold their game into a teams system. For evidence of this, look at teams that play unique styles of hockey and players who juxtapose that style of hockey. The Maple Leafs and Jake Gardiner to name just one well cited example.
That’s a discussion for another article, however, the main point that I want to make here, is that there really isn’t room for Mantha on this team working under the assumption of everyone being healthy and Alfredsson not retiring. It would be hard to convince me that Mantha’s skill set today better compliments Zetterberg and Datsyuk than Abdelkader. Mantha is already more dynamic offensively, but when combined with his defensive liability at the NHL level coupled with his inexperience in playing within a legitimate system, and his youth and inexperience of playing NHL hockey, this just doesn’t seem like anything that Mantha can handle just yet. Give him a while to adjust in Grand Rapids and then when injuries inevitably hit this team, let him slide in. Players will get hurt, Datsyuk has a chronic knee problem, Zetterberg has a chronic back problem, Helm has glass bones, Franzen gets concussions quite a lot, Alfredsson has bouts with back spasms. Injuries happen and I fully expect Mantha to play in the NHL next year, I just don’t think he’s ready to make the team out of training camp like most suggest.
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