When Anthony Mantha awoke from his pregame nap, he had the scariest notification possible waiting for him on trade deadline day. It was from Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman.
The text message read, “Call me ASAP.”
Mantha was in Carolina at the time, preparing to play the Hurricanes on Tuesday night. But a few hours later he hopped on I-95, grabbed a meal on the road and headed toward Washington D.C. for a team in a far different place than Detroit, both in the standings and in what he’s come to know in the league.
With just 14 games to play, Mantha was traded — for the first time in his entire hockey career — from the Red Wings to the Capitals after a massive move sent Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik and two draft picks for the 6-foot-5 winger’s services. And early returns are that he fits the Capitals’ style as well as anyone could.
“I think the physicality he brings is strength on the puck,” general manager Brian MacLellan said Monday. “He’s a long player, he uses a long stick, he has a good shot. I think the size factor more translates to skill than a physical running over people and I think he had that in him. He’s a big strong guy that can play a big game and uses his size and strength and length to his advantage. I think it’s an effective style on the ice.”
In Mantha’s six years and 302 games in Detroit, the only franchise he’s ever played for, he tallied 95 goals and 99 assists with a career-high 25 goals and 23 assists in 67 games in the 2018-19 season. This year, he has 11 goals and 10 assists in 42 games.
At his first morning skate on Tuesday — Washington hosts the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night — he skated as a left winger with T.J. Oshie on the right and Nicklas Backstrom as the center. It’s certainly the most skill he’ll have ever skated with in his hockey career, which leads Washington to believe he can excel on the scoresheet with more talented linemates.
He also skated on the team’s second power-play unit as well, a role his style of play fits particularly well.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Mantha said. “They’re two great players, I’m excited to see what I can bring to their duo, and hopefully it clicks right away and we score a couple tonight.”
As coach Peter Laviolette was quick to point out, though, the line he starts on certainly doesn’t mean he’ll stick there. And while Laviolette indicated that he’d like to have a more concrete lineup as the playoffs draw near and the schedule becomes less rigorous than it has been, there’s certainly versatility in what the Capitals can do with Mantha.
“He’s got size, he can play the game fast, he’s got a great set of hands,” Laviolette said. “I didn’t see a lot of him the last five years. Talking with Brian, this is somebody that he’s really liked for a long time. You go back and watch the way he plays the game, and you can see the skill level and the size and speed, you can see it translate.”
At 6-foot-5 and 234 pounds, Mantha’s a physical player, but in a different manner than one might expect. He has just 34 hits this season, which equates to less than one per game. And over his career since the 2017-18 season, his hit totals have decreased in every season.
Instead, he brings a big presence for the Capitals to put in front of the net, as someone that has a scoring touch to boot. He’s tough to knock off the puck and he offers a physical way of play in the offensive and defensive zones.
“I think a physical style of game is something that’s ingrained in our team, I don’t think there’s a message being sent,” Oshie said. “But a guy like him, with his size, and his athletic ability at that size, plus his ability to score, I think can be a recipe for success for him personally and his line and the team when you’re in the playoffs. You need someone to score those big goals and I think he can be a guy that can do that for us.”
Those net-front goals are valuable, especially for a team like the Capitals, as the games tighten up against physical teams like the Islanders and Bruins in the playoffs. Of all Detroit skaters this season, Mantha was on the ice for more five-on-five high-danger goals (16) than anyone else on the roster.
Mantha, throughout his career on a usually poor Red Wings team, has always been a positive possession player as well. So as a strong driver of play, and one who can get to the scoring areas of the ice, the Capitals are excited not only in what he can bring to the team, but in how many ways he can bring it.
“I think I can play physical over here,” Mantha said. “I’m a big body, try and bring some good one-on-one battles, win them, try and create some offense and shoot the puck. I need to shoot a couple shots per night, obviously the percentages are on your side when you do shoot. So hopefully score a couple.”