Anthony Mantha was blessed with a six-foot, five-inch frame, on which hangs somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 pounds of muscle, internal organs, and the other accoutrements that make us all sentient bags of meat.
Because of that impressive stature (NHL.com lists only nine taller forwards on the circuit who have played ten games), Mantha is expected to bring a commensurate amount of physicality to his game.
But that’s not his game.
Mantha isn’t allergic to contact, per se, and can be an effective forechecker when he’s engaged in doing so. But he doesn’t necessarily seek out contact the way that some of his teammates do. To wit, at five-on-five, he’s seventh of 14 Caps forwards in hits per 60 (there’s that forechecking) and tenth in the rate of hits taken. Based on the latter, one might assume that it has hampered his ability to find scoring chances (unwillingness to fight through checks to get to the net and such).
But that hasn’t necessarily been the case, as Mantha ranks second on the team in individual scoring chance rate (you know who’s first) and doesn’t really have the heat map of a “perimeter” player:
Despite strong underlying productivity numbers (and middling ranks on giving and taking body contact), most criticisms of Mantha focus on his almost universally accepted lack of physicality; “If only he used that big body more to his advantage...” And it’s hard to fight the inclination to echo that line of thought, especially when fellow Cap forwards like Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and even smaller players like T.J. Oshie throw their body around with reckless abandon for a team whose identity has been defined by “heavy hockey” as much as anything for the better part of the last decade.
But a piece over at the great Jack Han’s substack earlier today may give a glimpse into what is Mantha’s game... and why it may not be translating the way we’d expect. In today’s offering entitled “What’s Wrong With Huberdeau?” Han boldly makes the case that Calgary winger Jonathan Huberdeau “is the most overrated point producer currently playing in the NHL” (and with just one point and a pair of assists in their playoff series last year against Florida, Caps fans might well agree), but starts by stipulating that Huberdeau may be “the best 3v3 player we’ve ever seen.”
Interestingly enough, over the past three years, Anthony Mantha, in very limited minutes, has the highest 3v3 expected goal rate of any Caps forward and second-highest expected goals-for percentage (Evgeny Kuznetsov, unsurprisingly, is first). Since arriving in D.C., his individual expected goals rate at three-on-three is third among NHL forwards with at least ten minutes played. Again, miniscule sample (add it to the list of places he could be seeing more ice time), but data points nonetheless.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Back to Han:
Huberdeau has everything to be a dominant player at 3v3. He is fast, strong, incredibly dextrous and show a rare flair for feathering passes to teammates on quick counter-attacks.
However, the type of game Huberdeau wants to play doesn’t match up all that well with 5v5 hockey. Especially the 5v5 hockey practiced by his current team.
Han continues (and you really should read the full post and subscribe):
What’s happening with Huberdeau inside Darryl Sutter’s defense-first system is what many (including myself) feared would happen last year with Johnny Gaudreau.
Because of how tightly Sutter wants his team to play, CGY skaters don’t have much space to work with on either side of the puck. Everything is a grind. No one gets easy speed off the rush to get to the net.
Gaudreau ended up having a great 2021-22 season regardless. Despite his lack of size, Gaudreau is actually one of the most difficult players to contain in small areas. If you looked up slippery in the dictionary, you’d find a headshot of Johnny Hockey.
Huberdeau is not that, at all.
When an opponent initiates contact with [Huberdeau], he folds like a paper towel because his feet get stuck. As such, it’s difficult for him to win 1v1 battles along the boards or anytime he’s not able to get his (excellent) defensive stick involved. Unfortunately, these contested plays are dime-a-dozen in CGY’s system.
On any given night Huberdeau may come out on the wrong side of 10 or 20 of these physical encounters, which makes it difficult for anyone to execute with confidence in the rare moments he does have the puck on his stick.
Anthony Mantha is not Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Laviolette’s Caps are not Darryl Sutter’s Flames. But there are undeniable similarities here. For example, on zone entries...
Everything is a grind. No one gets easy speed off the rush to get to the net. Just about the literal opposite of the three-on-three hockey at which Huberdeau and Mantha have been so effective.
And what about “When an opponent initiates contact with [Huberdeau], he folds like a paper towel because his feet get stuck”? Han expounded upon that a bit on Twitter:
A few other thoughts after you've read the breakdown:— Jack Han (@JhanHky) February 1, 2023
1) The underlying issue is coaching. MANY Quebec-developed offensive players have the same problems, and it is never really addressed in minor hockey, Midget AAA or QMJHL. Then they get to the pro level and get exposed.
Hey, Mantha is from Longueuil, Quebec!
2) Huberdeau is one of the best ball hockey players in QC and plays it extensively during the offseason. His on-ice game is a reflection of that: quick stick, good sense but little awareness of how posture and feet position can influence his success rate in physical battles.— Jack Han (@JhanHky) February 1, 2023
We’ve written a lot about Mantha lately and engaged in the Twitter discourse on him even more. But Han’s insightful observations on Huberdeau can add to the considerations on Mantha, and the ultimate conclusion might well be the same:
His highly specialized game shows a poor understanding of the fundamental structure of 5v5 play, where roughly 80% of puck touches happens outside the dot and are physically contested.
It’s becoming more and more apparent that, in Anthony Mantha, the Caps have either the wrong guy, the wrong coach or the wrong system (or some combination of the three). And that’s a $5.7 million problem that needs to be resolved real soon.