Heading into the 2017 NHL trade deadline, GM Peter Chiarelli repeatedly stated that no major moves should be anticipated and that only minor tinkering would take place. He also mentioned the team deserved some sort of upgrade as a result of their strong play this season and their current position in the standings. True to his word, tinkering is all that took place. The night before the deadline he shipped depth D, and potential Vegas Golden Knight, Brandon Davidson to the Habs for struggling center David Desharnais. This move has serious boom or bust potential. On deadline day itself, Chiarelli acquired depth forward Justin Fontaine from the Rangers for Taylor Beck. This one is the absolute definition of “tinkering” but does provide the club with some playoff experienced depth at forward. The third and most interesting move was the signing of Niagara Ice Dog defenseman Ryan Mantha to an entry level contract.
Mantha’s link to the Edmonton Oilers began long before he was even born. On November 24, 1987 Edmonton dealt disgruntled Paul Coffey to Pittsburgh for a package that included young sniper Craig Simpson and Moe Mantha, Ryan’s uncle. Uncle Moe was a solid player for the Penguins, however never got off to a great start in Edmonton. After 25 games he was dealt to Minnesota for Keith Acton.
Ryan Mantha first started turning heads in his rookie season of USHL hockey with Sioux City. He managed a solid +15 rating during the 2012-13 season and quickly became a fan favorite. Sioux City underachieved and did not make the playoffs that season, yet Ryan’s size and hockey IQ stood out. His rookie season earned him a roster spot on Team USA for the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament where he played well enough to garner interest from pro scouts. Mantha split the 2013-14 USHL season between Sioux City and the playoff bound Indiana Ice. His point totals doubled and he was a respectable +3 in ten playoff games. His USHL career now over, Mantha was drafted in the fourth round of the NHL Entry Draft, going #104 overall to the New York Rangers.
The next phase of his career took him to the CHL and the Niagara Ice dogs. His rookie season went well and he was able to showcase his top notch hockey IQ and strong work ethic on a bigger stage. After 52 regular season games in 2014-15, Ryan had amassed 25 points and was an impressive +21. His plus/minus rating tied him for the team lead.
In the 2015-16 Mantha showed little progression beyond his rookie season. In fairness, Niagara had a mediocre regular season but did manage to pull it together in the post season where Mantha played a key role in the team’s march to the OHL final. Ryan put up ten points in his 17 playoffs games. Unfortunately Niagara hit a wall in those finals and were manhandled by a stacked London Knights team that would eventually take home the 2016 Memorial Cup.
Ryan’s career would hit a snag when he failed to secure a contract with the New York Rangers. Evidently his two camps with the Rangers and impressive playoff performance in 2016 did not make an impact on New York’s brass. The Rangers were hoping Mantha would develop into a prototypical shut down defenseman with the ability to chip in on offense now and then. Despite being a steady performer in his two years with Niagara, he failed to be that shut down guy and was unable to use his large size to neutralize the opposition. He was one of three 2014 Rangers picks that failed to earn a contract with the club and also one of 27 total players who reentered the 2016 entry draft. Ryan would go undrafted and would attend the Buffalo Sabres development camp later that summer. He failed to earn a contract in Buffalo.
Finding himself back in Niagara for the current 2016-17 season, Mantha is clearly motivated to erase the disappointment of not landing a pro contract with either Buffalo or New York. He has been at or near the top of team scoring all season and has served as the team’s captain and leader admirably well. From all accounts he has been more physical and has begun to use his imposing frame to control the opposition. Valuing size and mobility among his D core, Peter Chiarelli chose to sign Mantha to an entry level contract rather than take the more conservative approach of inviting him to training camp.
Having Ryan Mantha in the fold gives Edmonton another young, right shot, defenseman to groom for the future. With Ethan Bear being the only other right shot D of note in the pipeline, Mantha’s signing really isn’t a surprise. At 6-5 and approx. 225lbs, Ryan has the type of NHL size teams covet in on the blue line. For much of his junior career however, he has not shown the ability or willingness to consistently use that size to his advantage. Despite being described as a mobile blue liner, he does lack foot speed which will be a stumbling block he must overcome to excel at the pro level.
Projecting career trajectory for prospects is an inexact science at best. Legendary Montréal Expos broadcaster Roger Brulotte always referred to prospects as suspects. We suspect they will pan out, but so few actually do. Making Mantha’s future with the Oilers more difficult to predict is the fact that two NHL teams have already bet against him, yet at twenty years old he is having a breakout season. Perhaps he is the proverbial late bloomer, or maybe his production is the result of being an overage junior with two years of CHL experience behind him. Whatever the case may be, he is a project that Edmonton will invest in heavily and fans can eagerly keep an eye on over the course of his entry level deal.