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Anthony Mantha’s confluence of size, hands rare for Team Canada

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Mantha is averaging more than 2 points per game in Val-d'Or (The Canadian Press)

Anthony Mantha passed another checkpoint with flying colours on Saturday, creating chances all afternoon during Canada's exhibition game with the CIS Toronto Selects.

Chalk it up to ad hoc, knee-jerk, healthy skepticism, but there's always an impulse to think Mantha averaging two points per game in the Quebec League has to be too good to be true. Yet Mantha was a prime-time performer alongside Jonathan Drouin and Charles Hudon during the Subway Super Series, when Team QMJHL was the only Canadian squad to sweep its leg. With Drouin awaiting clearance after sustaining a mild brain injury on Nov. 29, he and Hudon re-channeled that synergy at the MasterCard Centre on Saturday while skating with 18-year-old Curtis Lazar.

There is no one in the CHL who can match Mantha for having a power winger's frame, 6-foot-5 and 204 pounds, and such a skill set. Just ask the guys from the other two leagues.

"Just on the spot I can't think of anyone in the WHL," said Lazar, the Ottawa Senators first-rounder who's helped Edmonton reach consecutive WHL championship series. It's cool to see him get those key attributes for himself. Just being out there playing with him I try to get him the puck and go to the net and clear space for him, As you see in the Quebec League, you give him that split-second and he can put the puck in the net."

What about the Ontario league?

"I don't think so," said left wing Kerby Rychel, who was drafted No. 19 overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in June, one pick before the Detroit Red Wings took Mantha.

It's fitting Mantha was the 20th player drafted in 2013, since that brings to mind how hindsight is 20/20. Five months after the draft is too soon to definitively declare that a few teams would like a do-over.

Mantha was the only 50-goal scorer in the Q last season. Yet he was available to the Red Wings due to concerns about his compete level and that age-old Achilles heel with taller players, explosive speed.

On the latter count, though, every sport has its big-bodied mold-bosters. Think of 6-foot-5 Usain Bolt becoming the world's fastest human. Or the Cleveland Browns' Josh Gordon turning a short passes into long pass-and-run touchdowns at an un-Rice-like 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds. Following his selection by the Red Wings, Mantha spent his summer focusing on his skating. The strength to get more from each stride began to materialize.

"I was able to put the details in so I could take longer strides," he said. "It's really about bending your knees and finishing your strides."

The standard of care about his own end of the rink has also kicked in for the Longueuil native, whose grandfather, André Pronovost, was a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s. Team Canada assistant coach Benoit Groulx has seen the change in Mantha over the past three seasons since his Gatineau Olympiques and the big man's Val-d'Or Foreurs are division rivals.

"At the beginning, he was a really offensive player," Groulx said. "But he's more responsible. We can tell when we play against Val-d'Or that he pays attention to details defensively. When you have skills like that at 6-foot-5 and you can shoot the puck, it's very valuable.

"He's got size, speed, skills, got a good shot, and he's got a very good flair around the net and it doesn't take much room for him to score goal," Groulx adds. "The older he gets and the more he learns about playing his position, the better the player he's going to be."

Foreurs coach Mario Durocher coached Canada in the 2004 world junior, when a third-period collapse — AKA the Marc-Andre Fleury meltdown — gifted the gold medal to Team USA. (Canada would win the next two golds under Brent Sutter.) Mantha notes that Durocher has got the point across that his D-zone play needs some working.

"He puts me on the penalty killing, which helps because it's defence first," Mantha said. "He told me that I need to bring my offensive game here. But I came knowing i needed to be good on the little details because one mistake can cost you a game in this tournament. So we worked on my defensive zone a lot."

Rivals such as Russia seem to mint gifted big guys with serious giddy-up. Do recall, or don't, that it was Dallas Stars rookie Valeri Nichushkin, who is 6-4 and 202 pounds, that scored the OT goal that put Canada off the podium last season. Current Winnipeg Jets rookie Mark Scheifele, who's 6-3, didn't necessarily have a bad tournament in either of the past two years. Neither did current Columbus Blue Jackets centre Ryan Johansen during the 2011 silver-medal performance in Buffalo; he was Canada's second-leading scorer. Memories are coloured by the colour of the medal.

So far, Mantha has shown he can adapt. Saturday's game was on an IIHF-regulation ice surface and it just looked like a bigger frozen canvas for him. One would never suspect that he plays half his games on Val-d'Or's smaller than regulation surface. It's all about adjusting.

"You need to put it through your head when you're outside the dots that it's a larger rink, more width, because that changes where you need to be," Mantha explained.

Meantime, with Drouin nearing a return, the possibility of a scoring line drawn mostly or wholly from the QMJHL is still in play. Sutter will surely experiment over the next week and a half before the games count, but Hudon and Mantha have a deep well of chemistry.

"We have a connection since Super Series and we need to keep it going," Mantha said.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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