Why negotiating with Auston Matthews is unfair and unwise

June 24th was a great day in Toronto. Almost as great as April 30th, which gets the edge due to the additional layer of suspense, if nothing else. Fans got to see the Leafs select Auston Matthews, perhaps the best prospect the team has ever had, with a rarely-possessed first overall pick in the draft. He debuted the new Leafs uniform and seemed happy as heck to be here. He’s been on the ice ever since, and now the 18-year-old is absolutely wrecking his future teammates at development camp.

But he’s done all of this without a contract. In fact, we’re now at the two-week mark of what should’ve been an extremely simple negotiation process.

Pick Player Team Signed
1 Auston Matthews TOR To Be Determined
2 Patrik Laine WPG July 3rd (3.575)
3 Pierre-Luc Dubois CLB June 29th (3.425)
4 Jesse Puljujarvi EDM To Be Determined
5 Olli Juolevi VAN To Be Determined
6 Matthew Tkachuk CGY July 7th (1.775)
7 Clayton Keller ARI Heading to NCAA
8 Alexander Nylander BUF To be Determined
9 Mikhail Sergachev MTL July 1st 2016 (1.775)
10 Tyson Jost COL Heading to NCAA

Friend of the blog and Sportsnet insider Chris Johnston wrote a very informative piece a few days ago, explaining the reason why there’s been such a holdup. Every single first overall pick in the Salary Cap Era (and, if we’re being technical, Alexander Ovechkin before that), has received a combination of maximum rookie salary, the highest upfront signing bonus, and the potential to max out Schedule A and B performance bonuses, designed only for entry-level players.

Both Schedule A and B bonuses are given based on individual success, but the former’s lie in raw numbers while the latter tends to be based on things such as trophy voting, nominations for end-of-year-all star games, or finishing in the top 5-10 in the league for a specific statistic. Perhaps the most famous example of this came in April of 2013, when a Taylor Hall pass to Justin Schultz cost the Edmonton Oilers approximately $4 million. Hall squeaked into the top ten in assists, Schultz ended up 10th in goals by a defenceman, and both maxed out their Schedule B bonuses as a result.

Lou Lamoriello is distinctly anti-performance bonuses. Straight up doesn’t believe in them. He won a game of chicken against Adam Larsson a few years back, waiting out the 4th overall pick for three weeks before convincing him to sign at $925,000 a year with no bonuses. Mitch Marner was offered his $850,000 in potential schedule A bonuses last year, but that’s because the offer was made before Lamoriello showed up, leaving him to make an “exception” by not pulling out of it.

It’s another one of Lou’s old-timey, classic rules for how he operates his hockey teams. To him, not having the bonuses ensures that the player plays for the team, and not themselves. That’s all well and good, but they should realistically be thrown out of the window for a first overall pick.

For starters, the precedent has already been sent. Ovechkin got a max deal. Crosby got a max deal. Erik Johnson, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad, and Connor McDavid all got max deals. Why? Because they’re desirable players who made it the top of their draft class through ability and work ethic, and they’re almost assuredly going to give you results right away. Let’s look at the first three years of the first overall picks in the fancy stat era, for example:

Player Role P60 Crel Role P60 Crel Role P60 Crel Cap Hit Adj
Patrick Kane 2W 2.3 3.2 1W 1.8 0.9 1W 2.7 2.1 6.5 7.8
Steven Stamkos 3C 1.8 -0.6 1C 2.6 0.5 1C 2.6 -0.4 7.5 8.3
John Tavares 1C 1.4 0.7 1C 2 3.7 1C 2.2 4.4 5.5 7.6
Taylor Hall 1W 2 5.4 1W 2.1 6.2 1C 3.2 8.4 6 6.7
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 1C 2 3.4 1C 1.3 8 1C 1.7 -0.1 6 6.2
Nail Yakupov 3W 2.2 -5.3 3W 1.4 -2.6 3W 1.3 -2.3 2.5 2.5
Nathan MacKinnon 2W 2.3 -0.7 2W 2.1 7.5 1C 2 4.3 RFA RFA
Aaron Ekblad 2D 1 4.4 2D 1.2 3.8 TBD TBD TBD 7.5 7.5
Connor McDavid 1C 3.1 6.2 TBD TBD TBD TBD TBD TBD LOT$ LOT$

Role/P60/CRel in three columns to represent each year of ELC. Stats from Hockey-Reference, Adjusted Cap Hit from Great Apes.. 

Other than Stamkos, who was misused by a horribly miscast coach in Barry Melrose, and Nail Yakupov, who might be the only thing close to a “bust” in recent draft history, every single one of these players were immediately used in top six (or in Ekblad’s case, first pairing) roles and produced at an above average rate while mostly driving team possession. 

Considering what $3.8 million buys you these days, most of these guys were worth market value or more from the start, even if they hit all of their Schedule A’s and B’s. By the time they all got to their third year, they were all among the league’s top stars, and got paid like it too (again, with Yakupov being a sad exception). I don’t even want to know what Connor McDavid is going to make two offseasons from now. 

The average forward on this list was a bit over a two points per 60 minutes and had a +2.2 Corsi For % Relative to his teammates. Not just that, they were still in their early twenties with room to grow. Realistically, if the third year of Matthews is even average by these standards, he’s still going to be better than any of this year’s big UFA’s were in their contract year. 

Besides, if Auston Matthews plays like a $3.8 million player (Darren Helm, Andrew Shaw, Cody Eakin, Anders Lee, David Desharnais, etc), he sure as heck isn’t hitting too many Schedule A and B bonuses. The only way for the Leafs to need to pay him that much is if he plays like a player worth drastically more, so how great of a look is it to rob a player of his potential ability to look slightly less underpaid? 

Some might say that they still admire Lou’s tenacity in trying to make the contract happen without the bonuses. It’ll save the Leafs some money in the next couple of years, they’ll say. But if the Leafs are suddenly so concerned about penny pinching, where were they when they spent $2.5 million a year on a fourth liner and $2.2 million on a defenceman likely to be a frequent healthy scratch? Why would you risk frustrating your best, youngest player over dollars that he won’t get if he doesn’t deserve it?

If you’re going to hold onto the personal line about keeping players focused on the team rather than the bonuses, how much faith does that show in your flagship, premiere asset to be unselfish? If you’re genuinely just trying to save the cap space, how much money do you realistically think you can spend once over $20 million comes off the book next year? 

It just seems like such a weird thing to fuss over, in risk of jeopardizing your relationship with the player, or at least his agent. An ELC that still pays him less than Tyler Bozak makes even if he plays as well as Mats Sundin in his prime isn’t the end of the world, and it’s better to give them what they want now in a pocket of cap transition than it is to get nailed for revenge on the second deal, after Matthews is most likely to have had a strong season under his belt.

Ultimately, it just seems like a silly thing. There’s no need to even remotely risk frustrating your player and/or his agents while he’s still a teenager because you felt that pulling $8 million over three years from under his nose made sense. Give him every opportunity to cash out that he can get, and if he gets there? Perfect. The Leafs are a better team for it. If he doesn’t? Much ado about nothing.

The team really should’ve had this done a few days ago, at least. Max the base, give the bonuses, kill the media speculation and get on with the show. 

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  • Brent Wisken

    I haven’t been concerned with the Leafs’ moves this summer, but if management messes up Matthews’ contract I will be very upset. My patience does have reasonable limits – don’t mess with the rebuild. He’s the number one draft pick so get the contract done already.

  • Jeremy Ian

    This is not a principled hill worth dying on, Lou!

    You are sending signals all over the place to the guy we have been spending years hoping to draft only to pretend that he’s just not all that important? C’mon.

    It doesn’t even make good business sense, since it’s payroll that has no effect on the cap.

    • JB#1

      I believe bonuses paid out at the end of the coming season can cause an overage in the cap and therefore be carried forward to the following year as a “penalty” against next year’s cap.

      But, I definitely agree, NOT A HILL WORTH DYING ON!

  • JB#1

    I like how Dubas and Lou are managing roster moves and cap situation on both the marlies and leafs. To sign quality market inefficiencies like Martin and Polak on the leafs or Clune on the marlies they need to make tough decisions like letting Percy an Parenteau walking and also signing Matthews for bargain basement contract. If you look at all the moves, this season the leafs have worked at minimising cap hits. Smart GM 101

  • Brent Wisken

    This off season has been very frustrating. Lou keeps making me weird decisions and if you have the nerve to question him then everyone jumps all over you.

    It is OK to question your team and it isn’t unfair to assume the questionable moves are being done by your old school GM and not your new school AGMs.

    • Gary Empey

      You always have to consider is your comment being trashed because you have the nerve to question Lou or is it being trashed because of the question you have posed. You will never know unless someone who trashed you takes the time to state their reason for dumping you in the trash bin.

      Every GM in the league gets questioned. Rutherford was questioned every day for his moves. Right up until he won the Stanley Cup. That only gave him a short break. Some people are now back to questioning his every move again. Just because you question a move doesn’t mean you are wrong, or everyone will agree either.

      EG: CMpuck up above accuses Lou of making a bad move by not trading Parenteau at the deadline. There was not one team in the League who were looking to improve their playoff chances by adding a 32 year old player, out with a concussion.

      How can he say something so stupid and not expect to be trashed?

  • Shanahan: They should not be worried at all. I’d like to think — we haven’t been here a long time — but I can promise our fans that our management group didn’t get stupid in two weeks. We will take care of it. We understand what we have in Auston Matthews. Auston Matthews will be there in camp and we’re excited to have him. It will all get taken care of. We are not a group that likes to give a heads up as to what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. I’m sure there will be people wondering about it the day it ends up getting announced. I would just say that people can trust this group. Lou Lamoriello has been at this a long time. One thing he said when he came here – Lou, Mike, myself, we all met – was “this is not New Jersey, this is not Detroit… this is Toronto.” So, it will get done. I’m fully confident that Lou will have that done and people don’t have to worry.

    People gotta stop, I know silly season is in full swing, but lets not all panic. Lou & co. got this.

      • silentbob

        But doesn’t the system/rule work that they can’t actually sign the contracts that would use the 5.3 million that will be free’d up by Horton until the start of training camp (or the season…..?) and he is officially put on LTIR? So some players might go the entire off-season without a contract only to sign the first day of training camp.

        As for the 10% they can go over the cap – maybe they feel its smarter to use that space to sign players who are free agents to lock them up and wait with players like Matthews who are locked into the Leafs even without a contract?

      • magesticRAGE

        I’m not completely sure, but I think bonuses don’t count with LTIR. R Leafs got dinged with a $500,000 overage fee.

        If Lou is going to dole out the bonuses that Matthews deserves, contracts need to be off the books by season’s end. That means Robidias, Horton, and Lupul contracts will count to the cap, as overages are looked at after the season ends.
        On top of that, Marner’s and Nylander’s bonus money needs to be taken into account too. Lou has to be very smart.

  • CMpuck

    Sure it’ll work itself out, but everyone made loves Lou in Toronto but what has he done that so great? The Polak trade? He handed over Reimer for a conditional 3rd a few days later, the condition on SJ making the finals was nothing short of a miracle, he wasted Parenteau that should have landed at least a 3rd, he cost us a 3rd to get from NJ, the Andersen trade? Meh, handed Andersen a fat contract but Matthews doesn’t have leverage so teach him that management has power?

    UFA market? He hit a foul ball in Martin and the draft? Well name me prospect not named Matthews you’re legitimately excited about.

    Wants Lou done in Toronto that is ‘great’? Dumping Phaneuf? Good thing we didn’t retain 2.5 on Dion, otherwise we couldn’t lock down Matt Martin. Good moves get negated by bad ones.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Jeff, we do appreciate your efforts to produce content in the dog days of summer but this is another case of your “what if worst case scenario” games..
    There is not one iota of proof that there is a problem getting him signed or that the issue is performance bonuses. Marner didn’t sign until July 28th last year yet I don’t remember panic.

    The management team hasn’t become “stupid” since winning the draft.

  • Harte of a Lion

    This contract thing is the only thing that’s making me nervous this off-season. A 1st round pick in a billion years in Leafs land who has crazy potential…give him the max, ALL of it.

  • silentbob

    I don’t think Lou has a problem with a max, bonus-laden ELC for a 1st overall pick. He and Auston’s agent are likely working out what exactly the bonuses should be based upon. In my opinion Lou is probably trying to angle the bonuses to more of a team-based structure. The agent is coming from the perspective of other 1st overalls’ ELCs (probably more individually-based). Just need to find the common ground.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Give it a break. No one knows IF there is an issue. Lou stated every situation is unique and is dealt with individually.

    I suggest we revisit this July 29th if Matthews remains unsigned.

  • Gary Empey

    I suspect the real reason Lou is against this is because he doesn’t see the sense in paying someone a bonus for doing the job you are already paying him for.

    If the company was producing a commercial product a bonus structure might make more sense.

    I do see a sensible reason for paying him a bonus. I note the team is owned by two sports networks, who also televise the games. The ratings are bound to go up, with Matthews in the line up, generating more advertising revenue.

    Does anyone know the worst case scenario. Lamoriello must have been around in the days when each years top picks were getting millions in signing bonus’ causing the creation of the ELC.

    Matthews did surprise everyone by playing the Swiss League last year.

    I hope the precedent of all the past number one picks getting the max, is enough to tip the scale in Matthew’s favour. We now know Lou has been working on the Bernier deal. There may be other irons in the fire we are not aware of yet. The delay in signing sort of goes against Lamorillo’s normal modus operandi, that we seen in the signing of Anderson.

  • Gary Empey

    Pay the kid what he deserves with being 1st overall. We do not want to get off on the wrong foot with this young talent. He can always refuse to play and head back to the Swiss league.