Capitals

How will Mantha play in his first full season with the Caps?

Capitals

Believe it or not, summer is winding down and it is time to think about the 2021-22 hockey season. Andrew Gillis and JJ Regan will discuss the biggest questions surrounding the Caps heading into the new season.

Today's topic: How will Anthony Mantha play in his first full season with the Caps?

Andrew: I’d say excellently.

The Capitals acquired Mantha at the last trade deadline with the understanding that he’d be a strong possession player and a big body that can crash the net and bring a physical presence. In just 14 regular season games in Washington, he delivered with four goals and four assists in 14 games (a 23 goal, 46 point pace), albeit with a small sample size. 

Even in the playoffs, as every Capitals line struggled to score goals, Mantha still drove play at five-on-five. He posted positive possession numbers, created more scoring chances than allowed while on the ice, and put up nine shots on net in five games. The problem was neither he nor his linemates got going. As is fair, Mantha drew a bit of criticism for his lack of production, but it’s important to note he was not the only problem.

In the regular season, Mantha was excellent at owning the puck (57.83% Corsi-For, with an outstanding 66.07% High-Danger chances for) and was no stranger to putting the puck on net.

He can fit in with Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov on either top-six line and impact that grouping in a positive way. The Capitals will have a full 82 games to figure out where he fits best, but the truth is there aren’t many places in the Capitals’ lineup where he doesn’t fit in.

JJ: First, I think it is important to note that we need to back off the Mantha-Jakub Vrana comparison. The central piece that went to Detroit in the Mantha trade was Vrana so both players are going to inevitably be compared to one another, and the fact that Vrana got eight goals and three assists in 11 games for the Red Wings while Mantha managed only four goals and four assists in 14 games for Washington looks bad. I feel like this is an apples to oranges comparison, however, given the situation Vrana went into.

 

Vrana stepped onto a horrible team that was not interested in winning last season and there was little restriction on what he could do there. Defensive structure? Who cares? Just score as many goals as possible! That's a perfect situation for Vrana and one that carries much less pressure than what Mantha stepped into on a team that had an actual defensive structure with its sights set on the Stanley Cup.

I always liked Vrana and he is a definite top-six player, but when Detroit decides to actually start trying to win games and Vrana won't have free reign on the ice anymore, then you can compare the goals/points totals.

Mantha was acquired during the pandemic and tried to adjust while playing a condensed schedule for a team with a new head coach who had a shortened training camp and no preseason. Let's just say I'm not surprised there were some growing pains.

It's not uncommon for traded players to thrive initially and then start to struggle as they try to adjust more to the system. The first few games are simplified for the player and he is told not to worry too much about the system and to just go out and play. Eventually, however, a player has to adjust to his new team and that can be a struggle. I think this is the exact situation for Mantha, who scored a goal in each of his first four games for Washington, then did not score again in the regular or post-season.

At the end of the day, Mantha came into Detroit at the tail-end of its playoff streak. Prior to getting acquired by the Caps, he had played four-and-a-half seasons of low-stakes hockey for a horrible team. The five playoff games he played with Washington were the first five playoff games of his career.

It should be no surprise to anyone that Mantha struggled with the transition, but the good news is that should mean we see a total bounce-back year for him in 2021-22. He is a skilled offensive player who can provide a physical presence. That fits the mold of exactly how the Caps like to play. In addition, this season Mantha will get a training camp with Washington, he will get a preseason and he will enter the season on a team knowing there are high expectations for the team's success. He is going to step into a top-six role and will be given every opportunity to succeed. As skeptical as I was of him at the deadline in 2021 given the circumstances, I certainly would not bet against him this season.

I think we see Mantha set a new career-high in points somewhere in the 50s. I'm not sure he will surpass his career-high in goals with 25, but I do think he will be somewhere in the 20-25 goal range with 25-30 assists.