Once upon a time, the title of “Most Polarizing Player” could have gone to a number of people, most recently guys like Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson. Fans have united more around positive and negative opinions respectively of that duo over the last year or two, and in that shift, a new target has arisen in Anthony Mantha.
Ask any fan and they’ll either talk about his strong two-way, possession driving play or they’ll complain about his lack of production and “effort”. So who’s right?
First thing to get out of the way is the sentimental part of this analysis. It feels like fans that don’t like Mantha feel that way because he was traded for a fan favorite in Jakub Vrana. That’s something that Mantha can’t do anything about, so you have to remove that bias.
But there are legitimate complaints to be made about Mantha, which tend to fall into two categories: lack of effort and lack of production.
The effort complaint likely stems from his play style. He’s a big guy, but he doesn’t tend to use his size the way people may expect (i.e. crushing dudes into the wall) - which is fine, because he’s impactful in other ways. He also has an odd stride that looks like he doesn’t put a lot of power into it but it gets him where he needs to be and allows him to be a threat on the ice.
The biggest argument against that perceived lack of effort is that he has been arguably the Caps’ best possession forward since his arrival and it’s unlikely that happens by being lazy or passive. Let’s look at the numbers:
- +3.17 CF% (2nd)
- +3.37 xGF% (4th)
- +3.37 SCF% (3rd)
- +2.22 HDCF% (5th)
And if you want to break down by just this season:
- +1.28 CF% (4th)
- +4.50 xGF% (2nd)
- +3.32 SCF% (1st)
- +9.78 HDCF% (1st)
Mantha has consistently been one of the Caps best forwards in possession since he’s been here. You don’t get that by being a lazy or uninvolved player.
So the effort is likely there... but then why hasn’t the production matched his status as a top-line winger? Well, technically, it has. Here are his five-on-five point stats and rankings since joining the Caps in 2020:
- 26 points (6th)*
- 1.8 points per 60 (6th)
- 0.75 goals per 60 (4th)
- 0.81 primary assists per 60 (2nd)
*It’s worth noting that he managed to put up the sixth-best points total on the team despite missing 45 games with a shoulder injury.
Even when isolated to just this season, Mantha ranks fourth among Caps’ forwards, with seven five-on-five points.
The focus on points at five on five, by the way, because he rarely gets to see power play time, which is somewhat baffling for someone with his skill set. Since joining the Caps, if you include Sonny Milano and Marcus Johansson, Mantha ranks ninth in power-play time per 60 among forwards (and seventh excluding those two).
But getting back to five on five - even with Mantha being one of the better Caps forwards in terms of both skillset and production, he could benefit with the right linemates and yet that hasn’t really been the case for him so far. In fact, he’s played with bottom-six centers way more than top-six centers. He’s skated 187 minutes with the top guys in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dylan Strome (or guys in top roles like Connor McMichael); on the flip side, he’s spent almost 400 minutes with Lars Eller and Nic Dowd (mostly Eller).
He has skated alongside Nicklas Backstrom more than almost any of these guys - 336 minutes total - but that can be split into two parts. There were 156 minutes with what we’ll call “Good” Backstrom (the 2020 model and, the healthier version) and 180 with “Bad” Backstrom (the version that returned from hip surgery last season as a shadow of his former self).
The difference between playing with top six centers (343 minutes) and not top six centers (564) is quite large - and doesn’t even include the 59 additional minutes spent with an assortment of rotating teammates, also not what would be considered top six material.
By percentages, Mantha has played just 35% of his 966 minutes of five-on-five ice time with a top-six center... which is pretty wild.
Even when playing with a top-six center, that didn’t guarantee a top-six winger on the other side. Here’s a breakdown of how often he played on a true top-six line (although we should point out that this season in particular, top-six wingers are few and far between for this team):
- Kuznetsov and Wilson: 20 minutes
- Kuznetsov and Oshie: 31 minutes
- Kuznetsov and Ovechkin: 21 minutes
- Strome and Wilson: 0 minutes
- Strome and Oshie: 7 minutes
- Strome and Ovechkin: 11 minutes
- Backstrom and Wilson: 7 minutes
- Backstrom and Oshie: 90 minutes
- Backstrom and Ovechkin: 16 minutes
- McMichael and Oshie: 24 minutes
So only 227 of the 343 minutes with a top-six center were also top-six lines overall, which doesn’t seem to be a position in which one can succeed. Instead, he’s more often than not playing with bottom-six players.
Between the strong possession analytics and five-on-five point totals (and less-than-stellar line assignments), there’s a lot to support the fact that Mantha is performing better than many people may think. He’s produced like a top-six player compared to the rest of the Caps, while playing with less talent than the rest of the top six and getting very little to no power play time.
The question isn’t really what can Mantha do better or why isn’t he producing - it may be how much longer will Mantha and his agent tolerate his time and position usage. With next season being his last big contract year, it’s doubtful they’d want to stick around on a team that isn’t giving him the time he deserves while still being so impactful.