Building off a breakthrough: Anthony Mantha

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Detroit Red Wings.

For Anthony Mantha, last year was a “finally” season.

Now, that relief and glee didn’t really have anything to do with the forward’s own failings. Instead, this past season was the year when The Winged Wheels finally took the training wheels off Mantha, for real. It’s no coincidence that Mantha took off like never before when the Red Wings truly gave him a full chance.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Questions surround Henrik Zetterberg’s health]

Consider that, in 2015-16, he played in 10 NHL games and 60 AHL contests, while it flipped to 60 in the NHL and 10 in the AHL in 2016-17. Mantha played 80 games in 2017-18, and responded with career-highs in goals (24), assists (24), and naturally points (48).

Back in November 2017, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill liked what he saw, even if he managed to squeeze in some criticism of Mantha’s previous efforts.

“I think when he first came to us he skated about 25 percent of the time,” Blashill said, via MLive’s Ansar Khan. “Now he skates closer to 80 to 90 percent of the time. When he’s skating, he’s a real elite player. Skating with the puck, skating without the puck to get it back, and then he can obviously use his real gifted skill set.”

We could probably spend hours batting around the tendency for observers – whether it be hockey fans, or in Blashill’s case, a head coach – perceiving a big player’s stride as “a lack of effort” (it happens all the time, and Mantha is a large hockey human), but that’s probably a moot point. While one could see Blashill blasting Mantha and others during the lower moments of what could be a rough 2018-19 season, it seems like Mantha’s generally gone through the rigors of at least proving he’s an NHL regular.

If anything, you wonder if the Red Wings might have been wiser to hand Mantha the sort of term they gave to Dylan Larkin yesterday, rather than the two-year “bridge” deal Mantha received.

Whatever the case may be, Mantha truly “arrived” last season.

Along with career-highs in production, he saw a new peak with a time on ice average of 17:18, up more than a minute from his 15:54 average in 2016-17. Mantha checks the boxes you hope for as a positive possession player, carrying over previous promise to a regular role.

The Red Wings should merely ask for more, particularly when it comes to deploying him in even more situations. He’ll certainly want more, himself, as Mantha could put himself in a position to earn a big raise over the $3.33M cap hit he’ll register in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

About the only thing Detroit would probably want less of from Mantha is penalties, and that’s something that can come as he becomes increasingly comfortable with full-time work in the NHL.

If the Red Wings see several players develop like Mantha, they might just turn things around, and break through.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.