If Anthony Mantha has not yet won over the scouts who doubted him on draft day, he probably never will.
Mantha, who the Detroit Red Wings selected 20th overall in the 2013 draft, was bashed in heavy-handed fashion by a number of scouts for being lazy and lacking passion — despite the fact he led the QMJHL in goal-scoring as an 18-year-old.
All he’s done since is take his dominance to another level, capturing the QMJHL’s most-valuable-player award with the Val-d’Or Foreurs and scoring 81 goals in 81 games — along with 158 points — on the way to a league championship.
“A guy who’s an MVP of his league and wins the scoring title while missing over 10 games … I think whoever made these labels at the draft and before the season, they should review their scouting notes,” said Red Wings director of player development Jiri Fischer, chuckling at the very suggestion of Mantha’s critics.
Of course, the Red Wings — who actually traded down from 18th to 20th on draft day — can probably thank those scouting reports for Mantha still being available.
Mantha, who is currently in action at the Memorial Cup in his quest to lead the Foreurs to a CHL title, retains his No. 1 spot in Red Wings Central’s end-of-season prospect ranking, and although the organization has quality prospects behind him, it wasn’t even close.
The 6-foot-5, 204-pounder’s ability to rise above his peers at the 2014 IIHF world junior championship, combined with his sheer dominance of the CHL, are indications Mantha will challenge for an NHL job out of training camp.
“I am, and we are, collectively, as excited about Anthony as we have been about any prospect,” Fischer said. “Offensively, he’s as good as I’ve seen in junior this season in all the leagues, from the Western League, to the OHL, to the Quebec League.”
Included in Mantha’s run to a QMJHL title was an eight-goal, seven-assist showing in a seven-game semifinal upset of the defending Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads. He followed that up with six goals and seven assists in a seven-game triumph over the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the final, scoring the winning goal in Game 7 with just 52 seconds remaining.
“The bigger the games, the bigger the plays,” said Fischer, who noted Mantha comes from a hard-working family with a mother who works multiple jobs.
Making the Red Wings in 2014-15 won’t be easy. Mantha has never been asked to back-check much and will need to show head coach Mike Babcock he is committed defensively. He’ll also need to show he can win puck battles and handle the pace of the NHL game.
But tough-to-please Team Canada head coach Brent Sutter described Mantha as “a sponge” at the WJC for his openness to constructive criticism, and his dynamic offensive ability would be a huge asset to a team that averaged just 2.70 goals per game (17th in the NHL) and found the net just six times in five playoff games.
And while it’s rare for a Red Wings prospect to go directly from junior to the NHL, the fact is they haven’t had a player this good at this age in a long time. If nothing else, Mantha should easily establish himself as Detroit’s primary call-up option among forwards.
“I know he’s going to (show up at training camp and) work hard,” Fischer said. “I know he’s going to put in the effort. He’s going to be ready for next year.”
Mantha has a team-friendly entry-level cap hit of $925,000, and unlike most high-end rookies — such as Jonathan Drouin — his contract doesn’t contain any performance bonuses. That means the Red Wings wouldn’t have to worry about Mantha contributing to bonus overage problems that have been known to haunt teams.
Goaltender Petr Mrazek held steady at the No. 2 spot in RWC’s end-of-season ranking, while four defensemen — separated by a hair — follow: Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul, Alexey Marchenko and Mattias Backman. All six of those prospects are a big part of Detroit’s future, and all of them will challenge for roster spots at training camp in the fall. High-scoring wingers Teemu Pulkkinen and Andreas Athanasiou follow at Nos. 7 and 8 before a drop-off to the next tier.
Following is a breakdown of RWC’s top 25 prospects (players who require waivers in training camp next season are noted with an asterisk preceding their name).
1. Anthony Mantha (–), RW, Val-d’Or (QMJHL), 57-57-63-120-75, +34, 286 shots. See above.
2. Petr Mrazek (–), G, Grand Rapids (AHL), 22-9-1, 3 SO, 2.10 GAA, .924 Sv%. Mrazek had another good season in the AHL, but more importantly, shined with every opportunity he received in the NHL. He’s ready to play alongside Jimmy Howard if the Red Wings let him.
3. Xavier Ouellet (+3), D, Grand Rapids (AHL), 70-4-13-17-22, +3, 92 shots. Ouellet doesn’t have gaudy statistics, but he transitioned flawlessly to the AHL from junior. Still only 20, he’s a two-way defenseman and the blue-line front-runner for a full-time job in Detroit.
4. Ryan Sproul (+3), D, Grand Rapids (AHL), 72-11-21-32-49, even, 155 shots. The 6-foot-4, right-shooting rear-guard stepped into the AHL and produced immediately. Still raw but with huge upside because of his skating and shot, he’ll battle for an NHL job in camp.
5. Alexey Marchenko (+4), D, Grand Rapids (AHL), 49-3-15-18-14, +11, 34 shots. A high-ankle sprain suffered in February ended a rookie season that was otherwise a huge success. His right-handed shot and reliability might give him the edge in training camp in the fall.
6. Mattias Backman (+2), D, Linkoping (SHL), 54-6-15-21-16, +26, 68 shots. Joining Grand Rapids for the AHL playoffs was the right decision because he made a huge impression. His poised puck-moving ability and good offensive skills should make him a solid NHLer.
7. Teemu Pulkkinen (+6), RW, Grand Rapids (AHL), 71-31-28-59-34, +18, 201 shots. Perhaps the most improved prospect in the Red Wings’ entire system this season, Pulkkinen emerged as a top-flight AHL scorer. He just needs to fine-tune his defensive play.
8. Andreas Athanasiou (+2), LW/C, Barrie (OHL), 66-49-46-95-52, +25, N/A. Blessed with all-world skating ability, he’s done everything the Red Wings could have hoped for in the OHL since being drafted. Now he needs to round out his game and find a niche as a pro.
9. * Adam Almquist (+5), D, Grand Rapids (AHL), 73-4-49-53-56, +9, 129 shots. He’s emerged as one of the AHL’s preeminent offensive defensemen. But with bigger, more well-rounded blueliners in the system, the NHL odds are stacked against him — at least in Detroit.
10. Mattias Janmark (+5), C/W, AIK (SHL), 45-18-12-30-56, -6, 99 shots. Janmark scored at a league-leading pace through early December before tapering off. He has tons of skill and upside, but the late-bloomer has yet to put it all together over a full season.
11. * Mitchell Callahan (+5), RW, Grand Rapids (AHL), 70-26-18-44-51, +23, 194 shots. As Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill says, Callahan is the type of player you win with. His grit and timely offense have put him in position to fight for a roster spot in training camp next season.
12. * Landon Ferraro (–), C/W, Grand Rapids (AHL), 70-15-16-31-52, -3, 195 shots. His scoring regressed, but he has quietly developed an agitating edge. His speed and versatility will serve him well in the battle for Detroit’s final few roster spots next fall.
13. Zach Nastasiuk (+4), RW, Owen Sound (OHL), 62-23-28-51-26, -14, N/A. Nastasiuk captained a CHL team at 18 and bumped Martin Frk out of the Grand Rapids lineup during his late-season AHL stint. He could be a breakout player next season with improved skating.
14. Nick Jensen (+6), D, Grand Rapids (AHL), 45-0-9-9-8, +12, 40 shots. Shoulder surgery cost him half the season and important development time. Still, Jensen has great wheels and is tough to beat defensively. He’s very much in the organizational mix on the blue line.
15. Jake Paterson (+3), G, Saginaw (OHL), 24-18-4, 3.41 GAA, .906 Sv%. He has pedestrian numbers since being drafted but is widely regarded as one of Canada’s top junior-aged goaltenders. It will be interesting to see whether he sinks or swims as a pro next season.
16. Martin Frk (+3), RW, Grand Rapids (AHL), 50-3-9-12-22, -12, 45 shots. Often scratched in the AHL playoffs, the hard-shooting Frk is a ponderous skater who struggles with the AHL pace. He needs improve his foot-speed and offensive mindset to have a chance.
17. Tyler Bertuzzi (+3), LW, Guelph (OHL), 29-10-25-35-49, +9, N/A. He missed half of the season with an alarming head/neck injury, but made an impressive comeback to win an OHL title with the Storm. The gritty agitator needs to prove he can stay healthy next season.
18. David Pope (NR), LW, West Kelowna (BCHL), 45-27-23-50-20, N/A, N/A. Under the radar playing junior A hockey, Pope was one of the top goal-scorers in his league. He’ll be in the spotlight more next season when he takes his game to the NCAA at Nebraska-Omaha.
19. Richard Nedomlel (NR), D, Toledo (ECHL), 60-8-10-18-150, -16, 111 shots. Stuck in a system rich in defense prospects, Nedomlel had a good season in the ECHL and plays a rugged stay-at-home game. He needs to jump up to the AHL next season.
20. Mitchell Wheaton (NR), D, Kelowna (WHL), 57-7-21-28-38, +31, N/A. Wheaton is an intelligent puck-moving defenseman who happens to be a towering 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds. He had a great season on a powerhouse team and is well on his way to a contract.
21. Marc McNulty (NR), D, Prince George (WHL), 67-17-25-42-115, -10, N/A. A healthy scratch early in the season reminded him he needs to play with more urgency every night. But he put up solid numbers and teases with his smooth skating and 6-foot-6 frame.
22. James De Haas (NR), D, Clarkson (NCAA), 37-6-7-13-18, -12, 49 shots. His skating and two-way play helped him crack the ECAC All-Rookie Team. With three more seasons before the Red Wings need to sign him, De Haas just needs to keep improving.
23. * Andrej Nestrasil (NR), C/RW, Grand Rapids (AHL), 70-16-20-36-24, even, 115 shots. Nestrasil has slowly developed a good all-around game as a pro, and impressed with 22 points in his final 22 games. A useful depth player, he’s likely earned another contract.
24. Colin Campbell (NR), RW, Lake Superior State (NCAA), 36-14-15-29-26, +6, 150 shots. The Red Wings signed the burly checker out of the college ranks and hope he’ll develop along the lines of Luke Glendening. Already 23, Campbell is a useful depth player.
25. Hampus Melen (NR), C, Tingsryds (SWE-J20), 11-0-5-5-14, -6, 17 shots. An acute respiratory problem cost him almost the entire season. However, Hakan Andersson swears by Melen’s offensive skills, so if he can stay healthy, he might just have a chance.