Anthony Mantha trade will help Golden Knights, but their big splash might still be coming

LAS VEGAS — The Golden Knights made their first move ahead of Friday’s trade deadline on Tuesday afternoon, sending two draft picks to Washington to acquire Capitals winger Anthony Mantha.

Vegas parted with its second-round pick in 2024 and fourth-round pick in 2026 in exchange for Mantha. In the deal, Washington will also retain 50 percent of Mantha’s salary, meaning he’ll only count $2.85 million toward the salary cap for Vegas.

We’ll dive deeper into what Vegas is getting in Mantha — who is on pace for a career-high in goals this season — later, but the salary retention may be the most important aspect of this deal. It means the Golden Knights are almost certainly not done making moves before the deadline.

In fact, considering they didn’t send a prospect or first-round pick in the trade, this may not even be their biggest splash.

With captain Mark Stone expected to miss the rest of the regular season with an upper-body injury, his $9.5 million cap hit no longer counts on long-term injured reserve, opening space for Vegas to add before the deadline. If the team had taken on Mantha’s full salary, it would’ve left very little room, but at 50 percent retention, the Golden Knights will still be shoppers over the next few days. According to CapFriendly, they still have roughly $4.43 million in usable cap space after bringing in Mantha.

The salary retention likely cost the Golden Knights the additional (fourth-round) pick in the deal with Washington. If they had no plans of utilizing that cap space, why do it? The fact that general manager Kelly McCrimmon paid a little extra tells us he’s still looking to add.

Who will it be? There are plenty of options still on the market. Mantha gives Vegas a much-needed scoring punch on the wing, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see yet another winger added. Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel and St. Louis’ Pavel Buchnevich headline a talented group of wingers who could still be available. Both have already scored over 20 goals this season, and both would fit under the cap with 50 percent salary retention.

There are also less-expensive forward options such as Anaheim’s Adam Henrique or Ottawa’s ​​Vladimir Tarasenko. A reunion with Reilly Smith still may not be out of the question.

It seems less likely that Vegas will add to its defense, but it’s not out of the question. The Golden Knights have played with all six blueliners healthy lately and the results haven’t been good. They’ve allowed 36 goals in their last seven games (5.14 per game). Alec Martinez is the oldest player on the team at 36, and has looked it. Zach Whitecloud was recently scratched by Bruce Cassidy, so if they identify an upgrade for a reasonable return, it’s not impossible to see Vegas adding a defender.

The Golden Knights haven’t played well in quite some time. They’ve lost eight of their last 10, and have a .500 record (22-22-6) since Nov. 5. Despite that, it’s clear Vegas is still an aggressive buyer at the deadline, loading up for its title defense with the hope that the additions and better health will restore the dominant team that cruised through the Stanley Cup Final last summer.

Now for what the Golden Knights are actually getting in Mantha, who is having a tremendous season after two disappointing years to start his tenure in Washington. The 29-year-old already has 20 goals this season, reaching that mark for the first time since the 2018-19 season. Mantha has battled injuries since then, and wasn’t the fit in Washington that the Capitals hoped when they traded for him in 2021.

Mantha’s scoring resurgence can be looked at two ways. The skeptical point of view is that his current shooting percentage of 22.2 is unsustainable for a player who has averaged 12.6 percent over his NHL career, and that a major regression is coming.

The optimistic view is that he’s an undeniably talented player who is finally healthy for the first time in a while, and that his straight-forward style of hockey lends itself to high shooting percentages because a high number of his shot attempts come from right in front of the net.

The truth likely is somewhere in the middle, as it usually is, but there’s plenty to like about Mantha’s game that projects to translate well to Vegas. He may remind some Golden Knights fans of Alex Tuch because of his stature and puck skills for such a big man. While he does skate very well in space, he doesn’t quite have the burners that Tuch does, but he’s also more comfortable in the trenches.

Mantha lives around the goal crease, with the vast majority of his shots coming from the low slot. His 39 shots from that area are more than 73 percent of the NHL. Even more impressive, 14 of his 20 goals have come from that area, which ranks in the 93rd percentile.

At 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, it’s easy to see why Mantha is so difficult to defend in front of the net. He’s strong enough to gain position there, big enough to make the goalie’s life difficult, and has the puck skills to score once he’s there. He does it well at even strength and on the power play, where three of his goals have come this season.

Many of Mantha’s goals this season are of the “right place at the right time” variety, but it’s a result of more than just luck. He has good hockey sense, knowing when to go to the dangerous areas and how to give his teammates passing lanes to get him the puck. On Jan. 23, he scored twice in that manner against Minnesota.

Mantha also has an excellent one-timer, and because he’s a left-handed shot who plays mostly on the right wing, he’s in position to use it quite often. That’s how he scored his final goal as a Capital prior to this trade, Sunday against Arizona. First, Mantha used his reach to force a turnover on the forecheck, then he moved the puck quickly to Dylan Strome, set up in the high slot and crushed the puck past Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka.

Mantha is also dangerous in transition, which is often the most effective form of offense for the Golden Knights. He skates well, passes it accurately and has excellent hands to finish plays himself when he gets behind the defense.

This breakaway goal on Jan. 13 is a good example. When a player as big as Mantha can deke to the backhand and roof the puck like he did here against Jonathan Quick, it’s almost not fair.

Overall, Mantha should be a good fit in Vegas, assuming he can maintain the form he’s shown this season. He’s defensively responsible, so Cassidy shouldn’t have any issues playing him on whatever line is needed. He has the pace and skill to play with Jack Eichel, Chandler Stephenson or William Karlsson, and the versatility to play on either side (he has played six games at left wing this season, and 47 games at right wing).

This trade seems like a good wager for the Golden Knights to make. They didn’t give up a first-round pick and added a player in excellent form who fits their style of play.

It’s a solid deadline move, especially if it’s only the appetizer.

(Photo of Anthony Mantha: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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