The Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves dominating headlines through the first few months of the 2018-19 season, garnering as much attention for their play as for their contract stand-off with forward William Nylander.
The deal was finalized just minutes before the deadline on December 1st, but the damage caused by the entire ordeal has sent aftershocks through the team for going on two months. Nylander joining the team rusty during the peak of the season for everyone else has tangibly affected his game, which currently boasts a concerningly-low scoring rate, and the hysteria surrounding the production has distracted from the other problems causing a mid-season slump.
It appears, though, as if the team is actively hoping to avoid something similar with their biggest star — or, at the very least, hope to avoid the distraction of the offer sheet rumors swirling around.
It was reported on Tuesday morning, per Chris Johnston of Sportsnet, that the Matthews camp has already started making headway on an extension for the team’s iconic American-born center.
Kyle Dubas says the #leafs have made progress on an extension for Auston Matthews. Ideally he'd like to get it done ASAP for long-term clarity before trade deadline. Adds they aren't negotiating with Mitch Marner at the request of Marner's agent, Darren Ferris.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) January 22, 2019
Dubas confirmed that he’s not interested in pressuring either Matthews or Marner into getting a deal done now, but did emphasize per Johnston that providing the clarity that the inevitable upcoming extensions will bring is something he’d prefer.
Matthews has missed time with injury in two of his first three seasons, but his scoring rates have nonetheless been unbelievable. The 21-year-old forward has 20 goals in just 34 games this year, well on his way to yet another 30-plus goal season and possibly looking at another 40-goal campaign. Marner has been a surprisingly elite player as well, leaving the player drafted one spot ahead of him almost laughably in the dust; in comparison with Dylan Strome’s struggles to put up 20-point seasons, Marner has 19 goals and 61 points so far this year alone. He’s on pace to hit 200 career NHL points before he even wraps up his entry-level deal, and has proven that he can perform regardless of who he’s playing with.
For the Leafs, obviously, the size and duration of whatever deals Matthews and Marner sign will have a significant impact on the way that the team assembles the rest of their roster.
The salary cap is expected to keep rising, but the face-value deal given to John Tavares in free agency this past July creates little in the way of wiggle room for the team and their top young stars. The $11 million cap hit Tavares brings for each of the next seven seasons accounts for nearly 14% of the current cap, and Nylander’s stand-off showed that the younger players in line for the throne after Tavares aren’t interested in taking discounts to make room for the free agent center. Nylander will count for nearly $7 million against the cap for five seasons after the current one, meaning that he and Tavares together could take up close to a quarter of the team’s cap room starting next season. Even as the cap grows, it likely won’t balloon fast enough to fit Marner and Matthews comfortably without sacrificing elsewhere.
Despite the difficult navigation ahead of Dubas and the Leafs, though, there isn’t much that the team can do if they wait things out. The Arizona Coyotes are considered a dark horse candidate to bring offer sheets back to the NHL in an effort to bring the Scottsdale-raised Matthews back to the desert, and they have enough cap room starting next season to potentially give the first overall pick a can’t-refuse chunk of change. The prospect of heading home to play for his own childhood team could pull Matthews if the Leafs aren’t able to lock him up before Arizona slides an offer sheet his way.
For now, they’ll just have to hope that the Matthews negotiation gets wrapped up soon.