On Monday night, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson made their respective season debuts for the Caps, necessitating some roster juggling that included sending Aliaksei Protas and Joe Snively to Hershey and Anthony Mantha and Nicholas Aube-Kubel to the press box.
All of these decisions are defensible, given the state of the team’s forward corps: Protas has been good, but is waiver-exempt, so it was an easy move - he’ll be back. Snively has been used sparingly and was unlikely to garner too much attention as the team snuck him through waivers. Aube-Kubel has scored a couple of goals recently, but is a fourth-liner who doesn’t play special teams.
And Mantha... well, then there’s Anthony Mantha.
Since being acquired in the trade that sent Jakub Vrana to Detroit nearly two years ago now, Mantha has had an up-and-down tenure with the Caps that has included limited hot streaks, injuries, and, most recently, a demotion to the fourth line before being healthy-scratched. He has become a bit of a divisive player among Caps fans, so let’s try to separate the fact from the fiction on Mantha and figure out what the Caps have in this player going forward.
Mantha had big goal-scoring skates to fill when he was swapped for (at least as headliners go) Vrana, a young forward with 24- and 25-goal seasons already under his belt. Coincidentally, Mantha (a bit over a year older than Vrana) also had strikingly similar 24- and 25-goal campaigns on his ledger. Since landing in D.C., Mantha’s goals-per-game has dropped from .29 (in his 14-game late-season debut) to .24 in an injury-riddled 2021-22 to .21 so far this season. That’s a 17-goal pace over a full healthy season, so it’s fair to expect more.
But is it? Mantha’s minutes are down (a chicken-or-egg situation that is a recurring theme in this analysis), as are his opportunities. His 12:50 of ice time per night at five-on-five is the second-lowest of his career in a full-time role... up ten seconds from last year, and his power-play time is a career-low 55 seconds per night, down from 1:52 last season... which was a career-low to date. His most common linemates this year have been Lars Eller and Marcus Johansson; a season ago, it was Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Even his offensive/defensive zone shift starts have been decidedly less favorable this year.
And yet, Anthony Mantha is posting a career-best individual expected goal rate at five-on-five (third among the team’s forwards, behind the greatest goal-scorer of all-time and Sonny Milano)... and is outproducing that.
Mantha has registered 5v5 goals at a higher rate than all Caps forwards other than Nic Dowd, Alex Ovechkin and Milano, assists at the second-highest clip (behind Evgeny Kuznetsov) and trails only Protas and Dowd in on-ice expected goals-for percentage (so it’s not as if the team is sacrificing defense for offense with him on the ice).
So how has a player with such impressive production ended up in Peter Laviolette’s Chez Bow-Wow? One goal in his last 11 games is an obvious, if unsatisfying answer. And his numbers have tailed off a bit over this small sample (but, again, chicken/egg/etc.). When asked about the scratch, Laviolette offered the following:
Laviolette continued:— Tom Gulitti (@TomGulittiNHL) January 8, 2023
"... I'd have no problem if either one of those guys were in the lineup today, Kubel or Mantha, but they're not. I had to make decisions, and that's where I started."
It’s fine that that’s where Laviolette “started,” even if that seems like much more of an end point than a starting point, given the trajectory in Mantha’s case (and, to be sure, there is plenty to which casual observers aren’t privy and which don’t show up on the stat sheet). But here’s a guy who is at or around career-bests in just about every important five-on-five rate stat, be it counting stats like goals or shots, or “underlying” metrics like expected goals or high-danger chances created:
As for the player, here’s Mantha saying all the right things:
Caps' Anthony Mantha said being a healthy scratch Sunday was a "wake-up call."— Samantha Pell (@SamanthaJPell) January 9, 2023
“I think it’s just my work ethic. Right now that’s what I need to do if I want to get back in the lineup and I'll have to show them."
Anthony Mantha called his scratching a “wakeup call” and said he sensed it coming as his minutes declined. He added: “I don’t think it’s necessarily the points and goals that (Coach Peter Laviolette is) mad about. It’s more the rest of (my) game.” 1/2 #Caps— Tarik El-Bashir (@Tarik_ElBashir) January 9, 2023
Ultimately, a healthy scratch here or there isn’t a huge deal, nor is some line juggling. But this isn’t a team that can afford to have a healthy and productive $5-million player eating nachos in the press box. It’s up to Brian MacLellan and Peter Laviolette - and Anthony Mantha - to maximize this asset, be it on the ice in D.C. or elsewhere. And if it’s the latter, let’s hope that any prospective trade partner values Mantha more than he seems to be valued by his current club.