- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2021

When Anthony Mantha woke up from a pregame nap Monday afternoon, the forward checked his phone. On the screen was a missed call he had slept through from Steve Yzerman. The Detroit Red Wings general manager also sent him a text: “Call me ASAP,” it read.

Mantha hadn’t expected a move ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline. He had just signed a four-year contract extension in November, which he thought would keep him in Detroit for the foreseeable future.

But Yzerman told him the news — that Mantha was headed to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Richard Panik, Jakub Vrana and two draft picks — and thanked him for his time as a Red Wing. Mantha went to sleep a member of one of the league’s worst teams and woke up playing for a squad eyeing another Stanley Cup run.

“They are first in the league right now,” Mantha said. “And for me, it is a huge opportunity.”

Shortly after discovering the news, Mantha made his way to the rink at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Detroit would face the Hurricanes later that night. Mantha picked up his gear, hastily said goodbye and then hopped in a car headed for D.C.

He stopped for dinner on the road, arrived at a hotel late Monday night and showed up at the Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday morning, ready to make his first impression.

Mantha said he’s never been traded before, not even in junior hockey. That leaves quite a learning curve for the 6-foot-5 winger, who made his debut Tuesday against Philadelphia Flyers. Coach Peter Laviolette said he opted against overloading Mantha with too much schematic information ahead of Tuesday night’s game, preferring to tell Mantha to “come here and play hard and have fun tonight.”

T.J. Oshie, Mantha’s new line mate at least for one game, said he and Nicklas Backstrom will be especially vocal with Mantha as they all learn from each other and build chemistry. But Oshie figures Mantha will mesh quickly with his new teammates. Oshie knows from experience how difficult facing Mantha can be, with his size protecting the puck.

Mantha’s more than a big body on the ice, though. He has 11 goals and 10 assists in 42 games this season with the Red Wings, and general manager Brian MacLellan said “the size factor more translates to skill than a physical running over people.”

Last season, Mantha was on pace to finish with an 0.88 points-per-game average, which would’ve been the best of his career. He played only 43 of Detroit’s 71 games because of injury, but his 16 goals and 22 assists were still the third-best tallies on the team. His most productive season came in 2018-19, when Mantha scored 25 goals and finished with 48 points.

“A guy like him, a guy with his size and with his athletic ability at that size — plus his ability to score — I think can be a recipe for success, for him personally and his line and the team,” Oshie said. “When you’re in the playoffs and things are more physical and you need to fight for the front of the net, and you need someone to score those big goals, I think he can be the guy who can do that for us.”

Mantha could slot into Washington’s power play plans, too — 27 of his 95 career tallies are from the extra-man advantage. That makes him a versatile piece with the physicality and marksmanship the Capitals so enjoy.

The cost was steep, losing Vrana, Panik and two draft picks. But Washington thinks the return — a player signed through the 2023-24 season at a $5.7 million average annual value — was well worth the investment.

“I think I could play physical over here,” Mantha said. “I’m a big body, try to bring some good one-on-one battles, win them, create some offense and shoot the puck. I need to shoot a couple shots per night, and obviously, the percentage is always on your side when you do shoot and hopefully score a couple.”

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