It's a matter of when -- not if -- Anthony Mantha returns to the Red Wings' lineup. Maybe Tuesday against the Panthers. Maybe Thursday against the Predators. But Mantha will be back on the ice, and likely back in a big role, sooner than later after Jeff Blashill made him a healthy scratch for Detroit's win over Florida last Sunday.
For Mantha, the matter of consequence is staying in the lineup. More specifically, staying high in the lineup, staying on pace with the expectations set by the four-year, $22.8 million deal he got from Steve Yzerman and the Wings in the offseason. Expectations, at the time, that Mantha embraced.
"Him signing me to a four-year deal tells me he sees me as part of the future, part of the guys that are going to help the team win," Mantha said in November. "And that’s the pressure that comes with it."
The pressure is rising. Mantha's been good at times, fine at others, but not nearly noticeable enough on a shift-by-shift basis. Not nearly assertive enough to help the Wings out of another early-season slide. And so Blashill, fair or not, took the team's second highest-paid player out of the lineup and the Wings, because of it or not, put an eight-game losing streak to rest.
Blashill wouldn't say Tuesday morning whether Mantha will be back in the lineup Tuesday night. He did say, as he's said before, what Mantha needs to do once he returns.
"Again, I’ve had conversations with Anthony, I’ve said to you guys. Ultimately, when Anthony skates he’s a great player, and when he doesn’t he’s not as good. So he’s just gotta make sure as a player that he’s just continuing to bend those knees and move his feet," Blashill said.
Sounds simple enough, expect for the fact that it sounds so familiar. This has been a theme of Mantha's career. On his game, off his game, earning minutes, losing minutes. He's such a difference-maker when he's fully engaged that it's painfully clear when he isn't. At his best, he hounds pucks, backs up defensemen and drives the net. He drifts out of view at his worst.
It's true, Yzerman put a lot of faith in Mantha with that long-term deal. But he didn't make any larger commitment to his future, the way he did with Dylan Larkin by naming him captain. He didn't paint a picture where it's hard to see Mantha playing anywhere but Detroit. The 26-year-old needs to paint that picture himself.
Blashill said he talks with Yzerman "pretty much every day about a lot of things, including our lineup and players." At the very least, Yzerman approved of Blashill's decision to sit Mantha down. Who knows if the conversation went any further, though Yzerman doesn't seem like a GM to micromanage his head coach. Point is, the message was delivered.
Now it's up to Mantha to respond, to make good on those words he uttered in November: "For me, I’ll have to bring my game to another level and try to help this team win."