Cap comparables: How does new Auston Matthews contract stack up in NHL?

John Shannon joins Good Show and sees Matthews' contract as a win-win situation for club and player and a number that fits well within the Maple Leafs' plan to sign Mitch Marner this summer.

In December, we explored the potential cap hit of Auston Matthews‘ contract and made the point that he could end up making at least as much as Connor McDavid‘s $12.5 million.

That assumed the Toronto Maple Leafs and Matthews would come together on an eight-year contract since that was the precedent set around the league by many other star players, from Nikita Kucherov, Mark Scheifele and Jack Eichel to McDavid himself.

The most surprising takeaway of Matthews’ new five-year deal with its $11.634-million cap hit was the wrinkle of a shorter term, which was reported on Hockey Night in Canada’s Headlines segment this past weekend as a likely outcome. Now that it’s happened, we know Matthews will be UFA eligible in the summer of 2024 at the age of 26. This likely saved the Maple Leafs some money on Matthews’ average annual value (AAV).

Whenever we look at direct comparables for big deals like this, it’s important to take into consideration the percentage of the AAV against the cap. That’s because, as the ceiling rises, inflation brings up salaries so the AAV on a deal signed even three years ago has little direct bearing on an AAV in 2019. Position is of importance too – centres generally have a higher value than wingers and you can see it in league-wide contract trends. It’s all about the percentages, relative cap impact and position.

The thing about Matthews’ new deal, though, is how the term changes the equation a bit, and follows a trend we’re starting to see around the league.

“It’s a new day,” Elliotte Friedman said on Sportsnet 590 The FAN’s Good Show. “Things are changing in the National Hockey League. Players aren’t afraid to use their leverage anymore. We’re seeing that more and more. Tavares last year, Panarin this year, Matthews kind of turning the salary structure over a little bit. Star players are demanding a bigger share of the pie, they’re demanding it earlier. I think there are teams who are going to look at it and say, ‘Boy, this is going to really change the way that business gets done in hockey and we’re not exactly happy with that.'”

Matthews’ $11.634-million cap hit is 14.63 per cent against today’s $79.5-million salary cap, but if that ceiling rises to $83 million this summer, the AAV will drop to 14 per cent by the time it starts next season. With that in mind, here’s how Matthews’ deal compares to some other star centres in the league.

CONNOR MCDAVID, EDMONTON OILERS: 16.67 PER CENT

Signed July 5, 2017, a year before it came into place, McDavid’s AAV of $12.5 million counted for 16.67 per cent against a $75-million cap hit the day it was signed, but it’s worth noting that when the contract actually kicked in this season the cap had risen to $79.5 million. So, technically, McDavid’s cap hit was 15.7 per cent on the first day the contract was active.

It was hard to imagine Matthews approaching McDavid’s cap percentage, but given the salary cap itself has gone up since McDavid signed, the direct AAV comparables could have been closer. However, since Matthews signed for five years instead of what was an industry standard eight for a player of his ilk, the AAV comes down at least a little.

JONATHAN TOEWS, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 15.2 PER CENT

Chicago’s captain signed this deal way back in July 2014 one year out from his old contract expiring. This, too, was an eight-year deal and Toews was 26 years old at the time he put pen to paper coming off a 68-point season.

As far as contracts that are currently on the books, Toews’ AAV percentage against the cap is topped by only Alex Ovechkin and McDavid. Still one of the better two-way players in the game, Toews is recovering from a down season in 2017-18 and has 51 points in 53 games. Now 30 years old, Toews will be 34 when the contract comes to a close.

It’s also worth noting that this was Toews’ second post-entry-level contract — the first one was a five-year pact worth 11.09 per cent against the cap.

EVGENI MALKIN, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: 14.8 per cent

Another relatively old one, Malkin signed this deal in the summer of 2013, also one year before it officially kicked in. At the time, Malkin was 27 years old and one season removed from winning the Art Ross and Hart Trophies. Malkin has been better than a point per game producer for the Penguins in each year of this contract, which expires in 2021-22 when he’ll be 35 years old.

Like most of the other deals on this list, this contract for Malkin was the second one after the expiration of his ELC. Like Matthews, Malkin’s first post-ELC deal was a five-year pact that counted for 15.34 per cent against the cap.

ANZE KOPITAR, LOS ANGELES KINGS: 14 per cent

This is yet another case of a player who signed long-term in his second post-ELC deal — his first was a seven-year pact that counted for 11.99 per cent against the cap. Kopitar’s current contract was signed in January 2016 and kicked in at the start of the 2016-17 season when he was 29 years old. Kopitar’s performance that season wasn’t up to expectations, but he bounced back last season to win his second Selke Trophy and was in the running for the Hart Trophy.

SIDNEY CROSBY, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: 13.5 per cent

Crosby is married to an $8.7-million AAV as that’s what he landed on in both his first deal coming off his ELC and this contract signed in 2013. When his current deal was agreed to term limits were less strict so No. 87 signed a 12-year pact that expires in 2025. The percentage against the cap on his first deal was 17.30, but on this one that fell to 13.53 per cent on the day it was signed and continues to fall each year. Today, against a $79.5-million ceiling, Crosby’s deal counts for 10.9 per cent of the cap.

The Penguins captain got security in his deal, but it can be argued no player has a better value contract that has left his team the space to make other improvements in the roster.

JACK EICHEL, BUFFALO SABRES: 13.3 per cent

Aside from McDavid, this is the best recent comparable for Matthews. Eichel, of course, was chosen second overall in 2015 behind only McDavid and though Eichel hasn’t put up the same eye-popping numbers through three years, some of that has to do with missing time due to injury. Since Eichel entered the league, he ranks 32nd in points per game (.90) and is on his way to a career season with 54 points in 48 games.

Those numbers are very good for Eichel — and he also signed a maximum eight-year contract — but considering Matthews is making just $1.634 million more and is the sixth-highest goal scorer since coming into the league, the Leafs got good value on Matthews’ AAV.

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