TORONTO – Here’s the thing about Auston Matthews and his much-discussed bonuses: If you’re the Toronto Maple Leafs, you hope to have to pay them.
You’ll gladly dish out $2.85 million in addition to his $925,000 salary in each of the next three seasons.
In fact, you’ll be more than happy to wire the young man in excess of $100 million over the course of the next 15 years or so. That means he will have become the player many have him pegged to be. The kind of franchise-altering centre worth punting away an entire season in hopes of winning a lottery to draft.
Today, Matthews is all promise and potential.
An 18-year-old feeling pretty good on the “special” afternoon when he signed his first NHL contract. Soon, he will move to Toronto and begin shouldering enormous expectations while getting to work on hitting those bonuses.
It’s true, Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello isn’t a fan of the individual clauses that can be included in entry-level contracts, but he didn’t have any choice with Matthews. That’s why the “negotiations” with agent Pat Brisson of CAA hockey began and ended with a 15-minute conversation earlier this week.
“He’s earned this,” Lamoriello said Thursday of Matthews. “He deserves what he’s getting. … He deserves the max that could be given.”
The beauty, really, is that he’ll have earned whatever this contract ends up paying him.
Only the absolute best of the best ever max out their entry-level bonuses. We’re talking Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Connor McDavid. Generational-type talents who challenge (or even win) the scoring title within three years of entering the league.
Chicago Blackhawks winger Artemi Panarin – a rookie at age 24 – also topped out on his last year, but that was a unique situation. He already had six pro seasons in Russia under his belt and got to play on a line with scoring champion Patrick Kane.
Matthews won’t initially find himself with that quality of teammate in Toronto, but he is coming off a pro season where he scored 1.28 points per game as the youngest player in the Swiss league.
That track record suggests he has a chance to hit the $850,000 in available “Schedule A” bonuses as soon as his rookie year. It would likely take at least 20 goals and 60 points in 2016-17 to do so. The “Schedule B” bonuses are much more lucrative, but Matthews would have to exceed expectations to cash that $2-million cheque in one or more of the next three seasons – needing to claim a significant individual award (not including the Calder Trophy) or finish in the top 10 in goals, assists or points to do so.
The Leafs, understandably, aren’t marking that down as an inevitability.
With their prized rookie now signed, they’ll be spending a significant amount of energy trying to temper expectations for him. However, Matthews is joining a team that didn’t have a single 50-point scorer last season, so he won’t exactly be insulated, from opponents or the spotlight.
“We all know what Auston is capable of because he’s done it,” said Lamoriello. “He knows we believe in him. … We just want him to be himself.”
“I don’t think you ever really set numbers for yourself going into the year,” added Matthews.
Should the California-born, Arizona-raised forward start earning big bucks right away, it will be a sign of better times for the organization. Sure, it might force them to do some extra salary cap juggling but they’ve shown themselves to be quite adept at that the last couple seasons.
In a cap system, it is the true stars that you want to pay. They matter now more than ever.
You certainly didn’t hear any grumbling out of Edmonton after McDavid earned the maximum $3.775 million while playing just 45 games during an injury-interrupted rookie season. Nope, the Oilers were thrilled to load up the bank account of a player that appears capable of carrying them out of the abyss.
If Matthews makes a splash in Toronto, the feeling will be no different.
Lamoriello may strive to create an organizational culture where the focus is entirely on the collective, but he’s also aware of what Matthews represents to the Leafs. Of what he might be capable.
In that light, his long-standing business policies include a little wiggle room for exceptions. The veteran GM says he’s not doing things the “New Jersey way” any longer.
Lamoriello is also fond of telling people that if he has time at his disposal, he likes to use it. That helps explain, in part, the 27 days that elapsed from when Matthews first pulled a blue-and-white sweater over his head at the draft to when he put pen to paper on a contract.
The wait gave diehard fans an added reason to sweat in the July heat, but didn’t cause any discomfort for the new face of the franchise. When push came to shove, Lamoriello never even tabled the possibility of an entry-level deal that didn’t include max bonuses.
“It was never a concern,” said Matthews. “I knew it was going to get done.”