Anthony Mantha wants to be a 'difference-maker' for the Washington Capitals

Anthony Mantha was accustomed to hating this time of year.

The 26-year-old, a 2013 first-round pick of the Red Wings, became a regular for Detroit in 2016-17 -- right after the franchise's NHL record streak of 25 consecutive playoff appearances ended. The Red Wings entered a rebuild, with no end in sight. Finishing toward the bottom of the standings year after year became a grind.

"It sucks," Mantha said. "You're playing hockey because you want to play in the playoffs. And when you don't have the chance, and you just pack every summer to go back home, and you're like, 'I'll just take two weeks off and start training again.' I mean, there's no motivation in that."

Mantha was viewed as a core player for Detroit to build around, alongside his usual linemates Tyler Bertuzzi and Dylan Larkin. He signed a four-year, $22.8 million extension ahead of this season, taking him through 2023-24. He bought a house, and was in the process of remodeling the basement into a man cave, adding a wine cellar, gym equipment and golf simulator. Then, last month, he woke up from a pregame nap to a text from GM Steve Yzerman: "Call me ASAP."

Just like that, the trajectory of his career changed.

Mantha was traded to Washington for a massive package: Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2022 second-rounder. The hockey world was shocked. So was Mantha.

"It's a blur, a wild 24 hours," Mantha said. "But then when you get to your new team, you slow things down, and you get excited for a chance to play for them."

And because it's the Capitals -- who have missed the postseason just once in the past 14 years, and will be vying for championships as long as Alex Ovechkin is on the roster -- it meant a chance to experience the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time.

Asked what he wants fans in Washington to know about him, Mantha replied: "I want them to know that I can be a difference-maker."

One of the first people to send Mantha a text welcoming him to his new team was an old teammate: defenseman Nick Jensen, who was traded from Detroit to Washington at the 2019 deadline.

Jensen didn't need to say much. "You're going to have a great time," he told Mantha. "The guys in the locker room are awesome."

"His adjustment period wasn't very long," Jensen says now. "He just kind of jumped in, like it wasn't as big of a move as it was. Some people might think he would be bothered by the whole situation, or struck by all the craziness. But he just came here and went to work."

Mantha became the first Capitals player to score a goal in each of his first four games with the team. He cooled off considerably after, with zero goals and three assists over his final 10 games, but his underlying numbers remained solid. In 14 regular-season games with the Caps, playing mostly alongside Nicklas Backstrom, Mantha had a 60.46% expected goals for percentage at 5-on-5.

"It's all about puck possession here," Mantha said. "They want us to keep the puck as long as we can, make the plays at the right time, and if it's not there, they want a lot of shot attempts or to get the puck back. They want to control the play basically for the whole game. Compared to Detroit, which lately was more of trying to dump a little more, and obviously the confidence wasn't as high as over here."

In Washington, Mantha has enjoyed watching Ovechkin up close. "He shoots hundreds of pucks every day -- and he's not just going through the motions, he's trying to break the nets, break pucks," Mantha said. "My grandfather [André Pronovost, a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens] told me once that Maurice Richard always tried to get the puck through the net when shooting it, and that reminds me of what Ovi does too."

When people talk about Mantha as a player, the first thing they mention is his size and speed. At 6-foot-5 and 234 pounds, he has tantalizing gifts -- though it still feels like he hasn't fully put it all together yet.

Part of it could be circumstance, playing on a perennially losing team. The other part? Well, plenty was written and said about the winger on his way out of Detroit, as many tried to understand why the trade happened. There's only one thing Mantha wanted to clear up. "Some people did write that I asked for a trade," he said. "And that's completely untrue."

Added Jensen: "Analysts, people outside the game, love to analyze players down to the bone. Along with positives, they have to find negatives, things he can work on. I think I read something about him having lazy tendencies, and I mean, I think you could probably say that about every player at some point throughout a game. Watching him here, I don't see that at all. I think the upside -- all his talent, all his skill, and physicality -- outweighs everything."

Leaving Detroit wasn't easy for Mantha. "I made some good friends over the years, and not necessarily only in hockey," Mantha said. "Like, one of my good buddies has a car dealership over there. Obviously, we're going to have to pack the house at some point, and put it for sale. It is what it is. Hopefully I'm not going to be back for a couple months now, but these are things I need to do to move on."

This stage, though, still feels surreal. "[The Red Wings] just went for their end-of-the-year party, end-of-the-year trip," Mantha said. "I was just on the phone with Larkin [last week] for about 45 minutes, just catching up. He's doing good, obviously, but it's hard to leave good buddies behind. But it's part of life, it's out of our power. I told him I'll be back this summer, and hopefully we'll play a few rounds of golf."

Mantha plans to spend most of his offseason in Michigan, in part to sell his house and tie up loose ends. Plus, his childhood home province of Quebec has implemented numerous restrictions throughout the pandemic. In Michigan, Mantha knows he will be able to train for next season properly.

For now, Mantha is still adjusting to his new normal in Washington. For his own mental health, he opted not to stay in a hotel for the rest of the season. Instead, he, his girlfriend and mini goldendoodle are renting a furnished Airbnb -- and next season they will decide whether to rent or buy in D.C.

On the ice, Mantha is used to having pre-scouting meetings, but he has been digging the more in-depth sessions the team has had preparing for the Bruins. Washington won Game 1 of their series on Saturday, 3-2, with Game 2 on tap Monday night.

"For us, we've been ramping up for the last month and a half, trying to get ready in the spot that we're in," Jensen said. "When it's the other way around, you're just trying to get through the season basically, and that's a tough mentality to have in sports. Him coming here, having that intensity and excitement, that's got to be special for him to experience."

Jensen said there's another thing fans in Washington should know about Mantha.

"He's a major competitor. I think that gets overlooked," Jensen said. "You know, people say how guys are fast, guys are strong, guys have a good shot, good playmaking abilities. But especially this time of year in the playoffs, being a competitor, and wanting to absolutely dominate the person across from you on the other team, is an underrated characteristic. You see it when you spend time outside the rink with someone.

"I've golfed with him before, and he's better at golf than me so I don't match him in that sport. But other games, two-touch soccer, spikeball, video games, whatever, he's always competitive, and he always wants to make sure he wins. That's what's going to make him so good for our team."