The Detroit Red Wings might have pulled off a coup at the draft this past June when they were able to drop two spots from 18 to 20 and still pick up the player they wanted in Anthony Mantha, the hulking power forward out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Mantha was the only 50-goal scorer in Canadian Major Junior Hockey last season, but fell in a very deep draft due to questions about the repeatability of his season (after jumping from 22 goals one season to 50 the next), as well as questions about his drive on the ice.
Mantha has 73 points so far in 32 games played for Val-d'Or and was an absolute force at the World Juniors for team Canada
It's no question that Anthony Mantha is playing at an elite level among his peers and that's naturally going to lead us to wonder how long we'll have to wait to see whether he can be anywhere near as dominant at the NHL level. To figure that, we should first look at the rules in regards to his contract, free agency, and waiver eligibility, as those pieces can be just as important as the considerations about how physically and mentally ready he is for the NHL.
The Entry-Level Contract
Mantha signed his three-year entry-level deal this October, committing himself to the Red Wings. Since he signed it at the age he did, the contract had to be three years long. As well as the length being set, it's also a two-way contract automatically and the regular compensation cannot exceed $925,000. Performance bonuses are allowed, but as of right now, Capgeek has none confirmed. If the Wings wanted to call him up, they would have to have a roster spot for him and the $925K in cap space available.
Although it's a 3-year deal, Mantha's entry-level deal will very likely not expire until the summer of 2017. This is due to the Entry-Level Slide. Simply, if a player under age 20 doesn't play 10 games in the NHL, his contract "slides" to the next year. You can have ELCs slide two years, but with Mantha, that won't happen because he will be 20 next season.
Once a player reaches this age, his contract no longer slides, as playing games at any serious level (including juniors) will accrue seasons played for the purpose of satisfying his entry-level deal.
Once Mantha's ELC is finished, he will become a restricted free agent where the Wings will have the right to match any offer another team gives him or to receive draft pick compensation for his leaving. Unless Mantha gets into 10 NHL games this season, he will be a restricted free agent in 2017 with no rights to arbitration. Generally, contracts like these tend to be short and relatively low-paying for non-superstar players as a tradeoff between the team not wanting to pay too much and the player wanting to earn arbitration rights (which in this situation, Mantha would earn the very next season).
Mantha can become an unrestricted free agent either at age 27 or after accruing seven professional seasons. Provided he doesn't accrue one this year, the seasons/ages will match up and he won't be eligible to become a UFA until the 2022 offseason.
Right now, Mantha is four years away from being waiver eligible and 160 NHL games. However, playing in 11 or more NHL games this season would give Mantha waiver eligibility a full year sooner. Until he is waiver eligible, Mantha can be assigned to a league below the NHL without having to first be placed on waivers where any of the other 29 teams could (and would) make a claim on him.
We saw this season with Gustav Nyquist that waiver eligibility can come into play in terms of a player missing out on a roster spot because of his waiver exemption. His assignment eligibility is simply more flexible than a worse player who cannot be assigned to the minors without first passing through waivers. Generally though, a very good player's waiver eligibility is more a problem for a different player than it is for him.
Being 19, the only realistic options the Red Wings have in terms of assigning Mantha is to have him either with the Red Wings or to offer him to his Canadian Major Junior team. The CBA states that a player who is 18 or 19 must be offered back to his major junior team before he can be assigned to the AHL and there's no reason Val-d'Or would want him playing anywhere else.
Next season, Mantha will be 20. CHL rules state that each team can have a maximum of three 20-year olds on their roster, but the Wings would have to want to specifically assign him back to Val-d'Or in order to make that happen, since they could place him in the AHL at that time.
Mantha's Development and the Red Wings System
Mantha is dominating in the QMJHL and is among the leading scorers at the IIHF World Junior Championships. He is clearly playing at the top of his competition level and is likely ready to play at a higher level, but the jump from major juniors to the NHL is a very large leap and a gamble for players. To add to the gamble, the Red Wings also have a number of older players who are closer to becoming free agents and/or waiver eligible that they want to give the kind of developmental looks to that Mantha might deserve.
When you put all the factors together, it's not likely that Mantha will get any NHL playing time this season. Making roster space to take him away from his junior team bumps him above players the Wings also want to look at and it risks that he'll end up burning a year of his contract, a year toward waiver eligibility, and a year toward salary arbitration rights. It's possible that he does get a call for a 9-game look where the team can use the maximum level of games without him earning credit for a year of professional experience earned, but those generally tend to come early in seasons rather than in late stages. If anything, he's most-likely to end up as a black ace for the playoffs, depending on how the Wings and the Foreurs do.
As far as what Mantha needs to work on? I predict that he will likely spend much of his time in the AHL next season learning to better utilize his size in a league where he isn't that much bigger than everybody. The difference in size and speed from the QMJHL to the AHL will be an adjustment for him that should teach a lot about how to eliminate bad habits and maintain a dominant on-ice presence.
Mantha will probably spend at least one full season in the AHL before making the move up full-time, but he'll have a bit more control over his ascension to the Wings than players before him. While many of his competitors will have to take time putting on size or adjusting to the different ice surface, Mantha doesn't have much more bulking up to do; he simply will need to get comfortable using that size against bigger and stronger competition.
Based on waiver and contract status, there aren't really any hurdles to giving Mantha playing time starting next season. His entry-level contract will start expiring as soon as the 2014-15 season starts and there's a lot of time to give him before they have to worry about having to put him on waivers. He won't earn arbitration rights any sooner and can't become a UFA any quicker, provided he doesn't play more than 9 games this season.
Mantha is at a time in his career where he should be gaining as much experience as possible. He's likely not going to be well-served with fourth line minutes and healthy scratches with Detroit early in his career, so if he's not playing higher line minutes with the Wings, he'll get those with the Griffins (unless he struggles in the AHL too). It's going to be up to Wings management to balance out his time in the coming season(s) between not being overwhelmed by the NHL and not getting bored with the AHL.
It's also going to be up to Mantha to decide how quickly he makes the team. Jokes about the Red Wings' slow development process aside, the team hasn't had a guy who dominates this much at the lower level for a while. If he can translate this level of play to higher levels, he's going to be very well-positioned to grab space for himself in the future.