Forward Anthony Mantha has played on the fourth line in Washington’s last two games. That’s an odd fit for a player earning $5.7 million dollars against the salary cap. And it’s continued evidence that the relationship between the player and team is broken.
That’s a shame, because I really like him.
This is a topic of frequent debate on the RMNB discord, but I don’t want to quote anyone there without their permission. I don’t have that same concern for the goblins in our Twitter menchies. Those goblins, paraphrased:
The last one I think particularly resonates. Despite being the second tallest (behind Protas) and second heaviest (behind Ovechkin) player on the team, Mantha is not a particularly big hitter. But physicality wasn’t one of Mantha’s touted skills when he was acquired; driving play and scoring were what people raved about. And despite whatever our impressions may be, he has unambiguously delivered on both.
Out of 235 forwards, Mantha ranks 85th in goal rate and 51st in primary assist rate. Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones tracking project, using a limited sample of games so far, holds Mantha’s high-danger passing in particularly high esteem.
Washington has possessed the puck better during Mantha’s shifts, an on-ice shot-attempt percentage of 53.1, higher than any other forward except Aliaksei Protas (54.8 percent).
And yet Mantha holds the second lowest on-ice goals-for percentage (48.9 percent) among forwards, ahead of only his most common linemate, Lars Eller. The reason for his minus-2 plus/minus rating should not be a mystery to anyone.
Anytime I see a player get talked about this way I always check if their goalie makes any saves for them and hey presto! pic.twitter.com/uffnpqkPtv
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 5, 2023
Washington’s goalies save 90.0 percent when Mantha is on the ice, the lowest among Caps forwards by more than a point. Those opponent goals are coming despite Mantha’s defensive performance, which has been remarkable. From HockeyViz:
In the heatmap above, Washington’s net is at the bottom of the diagram. The blue blobs mean opponents shoot less often from those locations. Overall opponents are getting 17 percentage points offense below league average when Mantha is on the ice, with HockeyViz estimating that Mantha’s impact alone is worth 9 percentage points.
But I don’t think anyone is arguing that Mantha is a bad defensive player. Perversely, his exceptional talent without the puck could be the reason he has been increasingly relegated to a bottom-six role. Those low minutes deprive Mantha of the opportunity to use the passing and scoring talents described above. Despite goal and assist rates that put him squarely among top-six forwards, Mantha’s all-situation ice time ranks him 228th of 297 forwards, a severe drop for the player since he came to DC.
Mantha has played eight of Washington’s 227 power-play minutes. He has played 22 seconds of penalty-kill time. Five-on-five ice time is all he’s got.
So Mantha is demonstrably a very strong passer with a scoring touch, but he’s played like he’s a plug. There is a glaring mismatch between the player and his usage under Peter Laviolette. Much like our reply guys on Twitter, Peter Laviolette may just not like what he sees. After one game in October, Laviolette told Tarik El-Bashier that physicality was something in particular that Mantha had been lacking.
To which I’d politely reply that if physicality is what you’re looking for in Anthony Mantha, you are simply looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place. And in doing so you are missing all the neutral-zone skills and offensive creativity that Mantha offers.
At the beginning of December, NHL insider Elliotte Friedman said Mantha’s spot with the Capitals “hasn’t been 100 percent a fit.” On that point I think everyone can now agree, though one could not place blame squarely on the player in any rigorous analysis. Instead, I think Washington’s evaluation of the player – insofar as we could ever understand it through the prism of the coach’s usage choices – has been a dismal failure. And regardless of blame, that’s the circumstance we are in now.
The Capitals have major roster changes coming as Backstrom and Wilson return from injury. With a potential Mantha trade already hyped by one insider, at this point I see it as an unfortunate inevitability. Nearly six million in cap space is way too much to allocate to 14 minutes a night, even if that allocation is a mistake. I have a hard time imagining a situation in which Mantha – who could not secure a top-six spot when the team was ravaged by injury – would somehow do so once the top six is even more competitive.
So that’s a shame. He’s a good player.
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Headline photo: Alan Dobbins
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