Beyond Headlines: Leafs, Matthews progressing towards new deal

This weekend the Hockey Night In Canada panel discusses contract talks between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews plus much more.

‘Beyond Headlines’ is a deeper dive into some of the stories discussed — and even some that weren’t — each week on Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘Headlines’ segment.

There’s a deal there to be done.

In fact, if we’re to handicap the thrust of negotiations, the odds are reasonably high that Auston Matthews will sign his extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs before our next ‘Headlines’ segment.

It’s not a 100-per-cent, take-it-to-the-bank guarantee, but there’s been increasingly meaningful dialogue between the sides and the player’s Los Angeles-based agent, Judd Moldaver, took a red-eye flight to Toronto over the weekend and plans to remain in the city during the Leafs’ mini homestand this week.

The progress, interestingly, revolves around a shared understanding that an eight-year contract isn’t the best way to proceed. There simply isn’t enough value to be found in a max-term deal at this time, for either team or player, and that in itself is a change from the logic that governed second contracts for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jack Eichel and Mark Scheifele.

Leafs management and Team Matthews are instead drilling down on five- and six-year options — deals that would buy up his offensive prime and include either one or two UFA seasons while still leaving the player in position to cash in again at age 26 or 27.

Let’s get ahead of the hot takes and make it abundantly clear that a shorter term has nothing to do with Matthews wanting to expedite his exit from the city or organization. No, with the Leafs facing a salary cap crunch, it instead offers the best way to satisfy two important conditions:

a) Placing Matthews in the highest tier of compensation among NHL players

b) Leaving Toronto with the flexibility necessary to navigate its window for Stanley Cup contention

The range for the expected Matthews deal is somewhere north of $11 million and south of McDavid’s league-best $12.5-million AAV, pending the final give-and-take at the bargaining table and whether it comes in at five or six years.

It will both shatter the previous best for a contract of its length and set a new market for the cadre of elite Group 2 free agents in need of new deals this summer, many of whom have intentionally put off their own negotiations while waiting to see what Matthews would end up with.

Expect the contract to be paid out heavily in signing bonuses, a perk the cash-rich Leafs have used as a sweetener in several recent negotiations. (Among the payouts they’re due to make this coming July 1: John Tavares, $14.99 million; William Nylander, $8.3 million; Frederik Andersen, $3 million; Patrick Marleau, $3 million; Nikita Zaitsev, $3 million; and Nazem Kadri, $2 million).

There are still some potential sticking points in the Matthews talks, such as the amount of up-front money and overall contract structure. The Leafs will also want to keep the AAV as low as possible, knowing that every extra $100,000 makes a difference in a hard-cap system, even when you’re talking about a deal in excess of $55 million total.

But general manager Kyle Dubas has already expressed a desire to get this contract done before the Feb. 25 trade deadline — “Yes, it would be selfishly for me beneficial,” he said recently — and Matthews struck an encouraging tone after Saturday’s 3-2 win over Pittsburgh when asked about the progress we reported on ‘Headlines.’

“There’s no secret there’s a cap. So, try to find something that works for both sides and obviously helps us out with that whole situation,” he told reporters. “I’ll leave it to them and just continue to play hockey, and once it’s done, it’s done. That’ll be it.”

Should everything go as planned and the Matthews extension get completed in the coming days, the focus will immediately shift to teammate Mitch Marner.

His agent, Darren Ferris, has previously expressed a desire to place negotiations on hold until after the season but the Leafs will check back to see if there’s any wiggle room there. Once the Marner camp knows the definitive Matthews number, their own path to an extension should become much clearer.

Assuming the Toronto kid wants to stay in Toronto, it probably makes the most sense to act quickly and remove a huge potential distraction before the most important time of year.

OFFER SHEETS

Tired: Marner will be the target of an offer sheet.

Wired: Kasperi Kapanen will be the target of an offer sheet.

OK, we jest.

It’s just hard to take all of the speculation on this topic with anything more than a grain of salt given the recent history in the sport. Simply put: Offer sheets have not proven to be a useful tool for acquiring NHL players and there are a couple of clearly defined reasons for that.

First, they require a team to offer a restricted free agent a contract so far beyond market value that it’s not likely to be matched. Second, they require that team to be willing to surrender as many as four first-round picks in addition to handing out a bloated contract. And third — this point is often overlooked — the player has to then be willing to sign said offer sheet, putting his current team in a bind while opening himself up to a degree of scrutiny most would prefer to forego.

If offer sheets had any rate of success, we would all be talking about the clear and present danger the Tampa Bay Lightning are facing with Brayden Point. He’s 22 years old, an absolute stud No. 1 centre and the Lightning are projected to have less than $10 million in available cap space for next season.

But does anyone really believe that Point can be convinced to leave a top team in an extremely desirable NHL city even with silly money on an offer sheet? What about Marner? That’s not a bet I would make.

Now, you might be able to engage me in a debate about mid-tier players like Kapanen. There is a scenario where a team offers him a contract the Leafs aren’t willing/able to match this summer and only has to give up a first-, second- and third-round pick as compensation to do it.

That’s similar to what happened with Dustin Penner in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks were bracing for the second contracts of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and chose not to further hamstring themselves by matching Edmonton’s $4.25-million annual offer.

It’s proof that it can happen.

But it’s roughly a once-in-a-decade-type of occurrence that requires a specific set of circumstances not usually involving a star-level player.

BREADMAN TALKS

An interesting nugget from Elliotte Friedman on the Artemi Panarin trade front: Interested teams will not be granted permission by the Columbus Blue Jackets to speak with him about a contract extension before completing a trade.

It’s a counter-intuitive approach, but one that makes some sense.

While Columbus could obviously maximize its return if the acquiring team knew it would get Panarin immediately signed to an eight-year extension, this tact makes the trade process much cleaner. There is reason to doubt the talented winger’s willingness to negotiate with anyone before hitting the open market this summer — just as he’s repeatedly put off talks with the Blue Jackets in recent months — and so it eliminates a potential song and dance that could sour trade discussions.

Panarin is already a rare and highly valuable commodity as it is. Still just 27, he’s a point-per-game scorer over a 292-game NHL career. And he’s producing well above that level this season.

We basically never see someone this good moved as a rental at the deadline, but this isn’t a normal situation.

DEADLINE PRICES

The crux to this buyer’s market is how little the sellers will eventually be willing to take on their assets. Nick Kypreos highlighted the delicate balance nicely on ‘Headlines,’ noting that everyone is looking for a first-round pick in return for good players but only so much of that commodity exists.

Toronto has already traded its first-rounder to Los Angeles. San Jose’s is earmarked for Buffalo. Tampa has its tied up conditionally in a previous deal with the New York Rangers, just as St. Louis does with the Sabres.

Even aggressive buyers historically known for parting with picks, such as Jim Rutherford of the Pittsburgh Penguins, isn’t sure he’ll trade a 2019 first this time around. He says he goes to bed every night telling himself he won’t.

We’ll find out if he has a change of heart in the next three weeks.

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