Auston Matthews isn’t a bargain but the deal still works out for the Maple Leafs

Photo credit:Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
8 months ago
There is still a lot that we don’t yet know about the new Auston Matthews contract but for now, in theory, there is a lot to like about it. It won’t particularly matter if the deal is buyout proof or not, if it’s front loaded or not, or whether it is paid primarily through bonuses or not. It doesn’t matter if he has a no trade or no movement clause. At least none of this stuff matters until the final year of the deal when we hit panic mode again and frantically worry about whether or not the Leafs can keep their marquee talent. What matters right now is that for the next four years, the Toronto Maple Leafs will have Auston Matthews in their lineup and for a price that should make him happy as the league’s best paid player for at least a moment in time, but also make the Maple Leafs happy as we all know that number could have been so much worse. So with the information we do have, let’s dive into the contract and see what we can appreciate and what concerns us about it.
It probably makes sense to start with the cap hit. A $13.25M cap hit is a lot no matter who you are paying it to. It happens to be a former Hart Trophy/Rocket Richard winning centre who is capable of getting Selke votes, so that’s not a bad way to allocate money, but in a salary cap world where your best players still only see around 20 minutes a night, it is not without its risks. If Toronto was an American market, that didn’t have Toronto real estate, cost of living, Canadian taxes, and a plethora of other anecdotal reasons for why players will take a haircut on their contracts maybe Auston Matthews wouldn’t have cost as much as he did. It’s hard not to say that Auston Matthews should make as much as Nathan MacKinnon and it’s even harder to make a case for why he shouldn’t be taking Bell and Rogers to the cleaners. Considering that most of us were predicting the vanity contract number that would include his jersey number in the AAV, it seems like Auston Matthews came in $150k per year cheaper than expected. I’m not ready to build a statue of Brad Treliving for the effort, but it could have been either a little or a lot worse, and it’s hard to see a path where it was going to be significantly better.
The next thing is Auston’s term, and his contract takes him until he’s 30. That’s not a bad time for the Leafs and Auston Matthews to reassess what is the best path forward for each side. Does he want the legacy of being a one team player and potentially the greatest Leaf of all-time or does he want to play in his home country or his hometown or ring the bell in free agency one last time and find out who the true highest bidder for his services will be. There is a lot of Auston Matthews calling his shot with this term and I’m okay with that. The Leafs are still getting the entirety of his prime years and they too will have the opportunity to reassess in four years and determine what is most important to them. It’s not lost on me that Auston Matthews’ deal takes him through the first year of a new CBA and then he’s going to be ready to negotiate in the first window of whatever comes next there. That will also be the first year of a new NHL broadcast agreement in Canada. Whether it is Bell or Rogers who wins that battle, one half of the Leafs organization is going to be making sure that the Leafs still have the star power required to make that TV deal profitable. That’s some nice leverage for Matthews assuming he is still performing at the highest level. The Leafs being able to assess Matthews’ play and health heading into his 30s isn’t a bad thing.
It’s also very likely that Matthews took less in order to get that shorter term. We’re used to seeing years tacked on to the end of deals to bring cap hits down but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that an eight year deal for Matthews would have come at a much higher AAV. The four year mark allows him the new CBA, the new TV deal, the chance to see what contracts are like after the flat cap era has closed, and another opportunity to land a pay cheque higher than what Connor McDavid will ultimately get from the Oilers soon. If the Leafs wanted Matthews with full term there would have been a team of analysts in his agent’s office projecting what the highest paid player in the NHL would be making for the next eight years and Matthews AAV would have to reflect something competitive with that. Going the four year route means that the Leafs can build something competitive around Auston in the near future and that’s about as team friendly as we’ll see.
Now all of that said, four years is pretty short for top talent. And $13.25M is the highest AAV we’ve seen attached to hockey player. Just because it is the Maple Leafs and we’re trained to expect things to be so much worse than they actually are I can acknowledge that this isn’t a cap win, it’s strictly a talent win during the best competitive window this team will have. There is also the matter of the other shoes that need to drop starting with William Nylander, but perhaps most critically the upcoming Mitch Marner contract. It will be interesting to see if Auston Matthews’ number is a line the Leafs are unwilling to cross and if the Marner camp feels they can push that number or even get close to it. The contract fun has only just begun and since we are apparently now on a four year cycle instead of an eight year one, the contract talk never has to stop.
Matthews’ percentage of the cap at signing jumped from 14.64% of the cap up to 15.87%. It will be interesting to see if the Leafs and players agents use that 8% growth rate as a benchmark for other Leafs players or if cap percentage is just something that matters to Brandon Pridham.
Throwing any attempt at analysis out the window, the obvious needs to be restated and that is it is good for the Leafs to have Auston Matthews for the next five seasons and it is even better that this deal won’t be something we have to hear about when training camp opens next month.

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