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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.

Watch Blue Jackets score two ridiculous highlight reel goals against Flyers

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Say this for the Philadelphia Flyers: Their games are never boring.

Their combination of skilled forwards, young defense, and perpetually shaking goaltending situation can produce some wild, back-and-forth games where you can expect a lot of chances, a lot of goals, and a lot of madness.

Sometimes that means they will do incredible things.

Sometimes that means somebody will do incredible things against them. On Thursday night in Columbus there was a lot of the latter happening.

First, we have Anthony Duclair scoring what might be the best goal of the young season with an incredible individual effort included him falling to the ice, somehow managing to stickhandle through a phone booth, then getting a shot on goal while falling to the ice and beating Flyers goalie Calvin Pickard.

Columbus is the fourth organization that Duclair has played for in his young career as he still tries to find a consistent role. He is obviously a talented player and has shown a lot of potential at different times throughout his career, and this is almost certainly the signature play of his career to this point.

Shortly after that, though, the Blue Jackets allowed Philadelphia to regain the lead on a Sean Couturier goal that was mostly just a giant whiff by Sergei Bobrovsky. His teammates managed to help him a bit in the second period, specifically forward Cam Atkinson, who scored a pair of goals in the first five minutes of the period.

The first one was off a nice looking play set up by Artemi Panarin.

The second one was this, that saw him fly in and dangle around Pickard to give the Blue Jackets their first lead of the game. It looks even better on the replays.

Nick Foligno would add another goal for the Blue Jackets not long after.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Red Wings GM Holland isn’t ‘looking over his shoulder’ regarding Yzerman

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One way or another, Steve Yzerman’s future as an NHL GM is on delay for a season, as he’s technically still working for the Tampa Bay Lightning. If another team publicly acknowledged pursuing the Hall of Fame player and top-notch executive, they’d likely be guilty of tampering.

So, take Stevie Y-related comments with a grain of salt, whether they’re coming from people involved with the Seattle expansion franchise, Detroit Red Wings, or anyone else who might be linked to Yzerman.

It’s still worth noting those comments, though, so soak in what Red Wings GM Ken Holland said when The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell asked him about possibly “looking over his shoulder” at Yzerman.

“I’ve been a manager in the league for 23 years,” Holland said. “I’ve won three Stanley Cups, five Presidents’ Trophies.* I don’t look over my shoulder.”

Should Holland look over his shoulder, or – considering the temporary limbo involved – in his rear-view mirror at Yzerman?

Logically speaking, you’d think maybe he should. Yzerman didn’t leave his post with Tampa Bay merely to placate another promising executive in Julien BriseBois, who replaced Yzerman right before the season began.

We’ve seen some succession plans in other NHL franchises that would make a lot of sense for the Red Wings, at least hypothetically speaking.

Glen Sather, another long-time executive with many skins on his wall (and cigars in his vault), made way for a younger GM in Jeff Gorton as the Rangers entered a new phase. It would make a lot of sense for Holland to essentially “move up the food chain” with a new title in Detroit, while Yzerman takes the reins as the actual GM.

(There are also less-friendly transitions to note, like with the Capitals, Coyotes, and other franchises that transitioned to a younger GM.)

Of course, the Red Wings march to the beat of their own drum, likely arguing that their way has often been a successful way. The consensus around the hockey world is that, while Holland has nodded to a rebuild at times, Detroit’s also been pretty stubborn to fully commit. That same stubbornness could conceivably keep Holland in power, even if it might be wiser to move on, particularly with a GM who’s proven to be as shrewd as Yzerman was with Tampa Bay.

During the darker moments in Detroit, there’ve been times when it felt like Yzerman was the one that got away.

There’s also the possibility that Yzerman would like to see if he can meet or exceed what Vegas GM George McPhee accomplished with an expansion franchise by building the Seattle team.

As appealing as it would be for Yzerman to swoop back into Detroit and save the day, just about any GM – not to mention plenty of sports fans who’ve daydreamed while playing “franchise” or “GM” modes – would delight in building a team from scratch. There’s something to be said, after all, for not having to deal with lingering mistakes from the previous GM; the Red Wings certainly have some shaky contracts remaining on their salary structure.

Maybe Ken Holland doesn’t feel threatened. Perhaps he’s just deflecting since the Red Wings can’t really show their hand now, anyway.

If the Red Wings are smart, they absolutely pursue Yzerman once they’re allowed to, even if it means ruffling Holland’s feathers.

* – Sportsnet indicates that Holland actually won four Presidents’ Trophies. Either way, the man is seasoned executive.

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.

Penguins – Maple Leafs is about as fun as it gets

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It’s too early to make sweeping observations about the quality of a team in 2018-19 (sorry Canadiens; you’re welcome, Coyotes), but it’s never too early to get excited about a game. You know, if your soul is still attached to your person, and you’re not too cool to get excited about things in general.

Now, sure, circumstances could change matters. Players could be tired or just have an off night. Maybe a coach will bench an exhilarating talent because they hit the snooze button one too many times.

But, at least on paper, it’s really difficult to imagine a more exciting matchup than Penguins – Maple Leafs, a matchup taking place in Toronto tonight.

(Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that the hockey-mad city gets to channel its sometimes over-the-top excitement into this one, either.)

Just consider all of the factors, narratives, and certain statistics that make this game stand out like a sign for “Kenny Rogers’ Roasters.”

[Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for Crosby to shake off a relatively slow start?]

The Ridiculous Wattage of Star Power

No matter how Mike Babcock and Mike Sullivan deploy their lines, you’ll see high-end talent during almost every shift on Thursday.

Most obviously, we’ll get to see a clash between two premium one-two punches at center, as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin trade scoring chances with Auston Matthews and John Tavares. That’s the sort of matchup that marketers and hockey fans alike would normally only dream about.

You could manufacture an exciting game if you sent out a bunch of fire hydrants with those guys, but the Penguins and Maple Leafs deploy other dangerous scorers, even with William Nylander‘s contract situation stuck in limbo.

Phil Kessel could easily have the best night of anyone in trying to spite his former team. Jake Guentzel tends to play his best when the spotlight shines brightest. Mitch Marner is a sensational talent who can take over a game in his own right.

Even the defensemen can bring some offense to the table, as Kris Letang and Morgan Rielly have begun 2018-19 on torrid scoring paces, while Jake Gardiner and others can contribute, too.

All the silliness that stems from all that star power

The goofy debates that stem from Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby vs. McDavid, and on and on, ultimately translates to entertainment. That goes for if you take barroom debates seriously, or are simply bemused by people believing that Matthews has reached McDavid after a couple scorching-hot weeks.

It’s not just columnists pumping out hot takes.

As you may remember, Lars Eller dismissed Matthews – Tavares because of the “been there, done that” feeling of facing Crosby – Malkin for all those years. You then have Babcock saying that McDavid vs. Crosby “isn’t even close,” while Mark Scheifele seems to feel the same way about McDavid vs. Matthews.

(You think we could get Edmonton to loan Connor to this game to really hammer home all of these points? Might be good for the fella’s morale.)

Oh yeah, there’s also Brian Burke comparing Rielly to … Nicklas Lidstrom?

Some of this stuff is dopey. Some of it is instructive. Maybe there’s a combination of both at times. But it all adds to the fun, if you ask me.

All offense, no defense?

By winning two consecutive Stanley Cups while playing an attack-first, play-defense later style, the Penguins played a big role in the NHL placing an increased emphasis on skill, scoring, and more exciting hockey.

So far this season, the Maple Leafs feel like the gnarly evolution of that style.

By just about any measure, Toronto’s been playing high-event hockey this season. They’ve been scoring so much that it’s generally allowed them to shrug their shoulders at what’s frequently been a leaky defense.

The Penguins haven’t been as crisp so far this season, failing to walk the high-risk tightrope because their defense has really cratered.

That’s bad news for Pittsburgh’s hopes of, say, winning its division … but it sure opens the door for tonight to be fun.

Big goalies back in net

Barring late-breaking setbacks, the teams’ two starters (Matt Murray and Frederik Andersen) should suit up for their respective teams on Thursday.

If they play well, this showdown could feature at least some slowdown. Perhaps we’ll see a spectacular save or two from both goalies to keep the score reasonable? If they’re rusty, then the floodgates may open even wider.

Either way, the returns of Murray and Andersen add another wrinkle to a game that’s jam-packed with intrigue.

***

Again, it’s possible that this game might not deliver the thrills you’d expect. Sometimes hockey is just that way in 2018, even with some progress made – thanks in part to these two talented teams.

Still, if you had to wager on a game being a ton of fun, Penguins – Maple Leafs is as safe a bet as you can get. You know, unless you’re the coach breaking down defensive lapses or the goalie trying to put out all of those fires.

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.

Looking at Johnny Gaudreau’s career, 100 goals in

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Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames likely experienced mixed feelings following their 5-2 win against the Boston Bruins last night.

Looking at the good side, the Flames won in part because a line other than Gaudreau’s top trio stepped up, as Michael Frolik trumpeted the reunion of the often-puck-dominant “3M Line.” Wednesday also represented a milestone moment for Gaudreau, who scored the 100th goal of his NHL career in his 318th game, putting him at that mark at age 25.

That milestone tally happened during a stretch where the Flames really overwhelmed the Bruins:

The bad news came right after Gaudreau narrowly fell short of NHL goal 101, as Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy injured the spritely forward with this questionable, late hit:

As much of a bummer as the injury is – especially if further updates indicate that “Johnny Hockey” would miss some time – it might be fitting that such an event happened. After all, defenders realize that they’re not often going to catch or out-think Gaudreau, so they often try to outright bully him. Let’s not forget that the many slashes he took during certain stretches helped inspire the NHL to cut down on the infractions heading into last season.

Generally speaking, such a vicious approach hasn’t stopped Gaudreau from lighting up scoreboards.

To review, the 25-year-old now has 100 goals and 197 assists for 297 points over 318 NHL games, so Gaudreau could hit two other noteworthy milestones in the near future — health permitting.

It’s fitting that Gaudreau scored a goal in his lone 2013-14 appearance, as he’s been a delight to watch basically since he entered the NHL. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider his place among the elite scorers after hitting the 100-goal plateau?

  • Since Gaudreau entered the NHL, he ranks 12th among all players with those 297 points. Gaudreau stands in front of Vladimir Tarasenko (293), Jakub Voracek (291), and Phil Kessel (290) despite appearing in fewer games.
  • That 100th goal stands out as a rare instance where Gaudreau was the player scoring the easy tap-in. Typically, he really sets the table for his linemates with brilliant playmaking, which is part of the reason why many pundits have been so reluctant to praise Sean Monahan.

Gaudreau’s 197 assists places him in a tie with Brent Burns for ninth-best in the NHL, and the burly Sharks defenseman played in 16 additional games (not to mention logging Norris-level minutes).

  • One remarkable thing about those impressive numbers is that Gaudreau hit the ground running right away as a rookie, while other players were, in many cases, far more experienced.

Gaudreau’s really impressed lately, generating 93 points in his last 86 games between this early season and 2017-18. Despite Sidney Crosby playing in two additional games last season (82 to Gaudreau’s 80), he tied the Penguins playmaker for seventh in the NHL with 60 assists.

While Gaudreau is – understandably – leveraged for heavy offensive usage, it doesn’t hurt that the puck tends to go in the right direction when he’s on the ice, either.

The Flames would be missing one heck of a scorer if Gaudreau needs to heal up before shooting for goal 101 (not to mention assist 200, and point 300 …). Beyond that, hockey fans will miss out on one of the NHL’s most splendid playmakers, so here’s hoping that this is just a minor hiccup.

Update: It looks like things are going well in that regard.

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.