Detroit Red Wings mailbag: Who should fight when needed?

Helene St. James, Detroit Free Press
·3 min read

Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman said recently he wants Anthony Mantha playing hockey, not sidelined from a fight. His comments prompted a reader to wonder: If not Mantha, who should drop their gloves for the Wings?

Mantha has missed significant time the past two years after getting involved in scuffles. Last season, Mantha spent six weeks recovering from a punctured lung after challenging Toronto’s Jake Muzzin following a legal hit on Madison Bowey. In 2018-19, Mantha missed a month after injuring a hand fighting Patrik Nemeth, then with Colorado, following a legal hit on Dylan Larkin. Mantha also missed the last five games of the 2016-17 season after injuring a finger fighting Tampa Bay’s Luke Witkowski, who challenged Mantha because of a hit in a prior game on Gregg McKegg.

Detroit Red Wings' Givani Smith (48) comes off the bench against the Florida Panthers at Little Caesars Arena, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020.
Detroit Red Wings' Givani Smith (48) comes off the bench against the Florida Panthers at Little Caesars Arena, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020.

Mantha is an important player for the Wings. He’s their best goal scorer, and while it’s commendable that he stands up for teammates, the Wings are not served by having him sitting in sick bay. Mantha’s value was most recently shown when he received a four-year, $22.8 million contract on Nov. 3. The day after the contract was finalized, Yzerman said he won’t tell his players not to fight, but that the Wings need Mantha in the lineup.

That led Ted P. to ask via email about the Wings having an enforcer. “Can you write something about Dylan McIlrath as I’ve always thought he was positive addition to Wings roster as teams respected us more when he was in the lineup. … (Givani) Smith also could bring some toughness and enforcer type play for the Wings roster too. I’m really hoping Steve Y believes they need some respect on the ice with all these young kids coming up.”

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McIlrath, 28, came into the NHL with high expectations, drafted 10th by the New York Rangers in 2010, but the 6-foot-5, 236-pound defenseman has not been able to establish himself as an NHL regular, logging just 66 career games. He’s a good minor leaguer, someone the Wings value having in Grand Rapids because he helps prospects adjust to professional hockey and opens up space for them.

Smith, 22, was drafted in the second round in 2016, billed as a high-energy, physical forward with a respectable scoring touch. He made his NHL debut last season, appearing in 21 games (two goals, one assist) over three stints before being returned to the Griffins in February. Smith (6-feet-2, around 205 pounds) has fought multiple times at the American Hockey League level, twice during NHL preseason games, and once — Nov. 12, 2019, at Anaheim — in a regular-season game.

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The key for Smith will be demonstrating he can be physical — such as delivering big hits — without taking penalties for the Wings. He must show he belongs in the bottom-six mix amid competition that includes Adam Erne and Evgeni Svechnikov. The Wings certainly could stand to be more physical, beyond just having a capable fighter whose absence would not be as devastating as losing a scorer such as Mantha, and that’s where Smith has to establish his value in the lineup.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Red Wings mailbag: Who should fight when needed?