How Auston Matthews approaches his next contract could define his Maple Leafs legacy

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving discusses Auston Matthews' contract situation, saying "priority No. 1" is getting a chance to meet with the 2022 Hart Trophy winner.

Many NHL players regularly enter the final year of their contract without much fanfare, hoping to play well enough to earn an extension mid-season, or to get a payday as free agents.

But that’s not how it works for 25-year-olds with the cache of Auston Matthews, who was a No. 1 overall pick, has scored 60 goals in a season, and won a Hart Trophy. Those rare talents tend to get signed before that final season or there are fireworks. So, it’s kinda fitting that these glimmering explosives are queued to go off sometime between Canada Day and Independence Day, isn’t it?

The legacy of an NHL player is defined by a few things, with the sum of their career checking in at the No. 1 spot. There are a variety of other factors, too: How many years and games did they play? How many goals and points did they score? And how many awards did they and their team win?

For big-name players like John Tavares and Johnny Gaudreau, as spectacular as they were in New York and Calgary respectively, they’ll never be as beloved in those cities as they could’ve been had they stayed, or had they even clarified they wanted out so the team could recoup assets. For players like Ryan Getzlaf, his legacy is partially shaped by his decision to remain loyal to the Anaheim Ducks and not pursue a second Stanley Cup in his later seasons, guaranteeing they’ll love him forever, even if others may question those priorities. Matthew Tkachuk left his old team as a young star but gave his team the chance to trade him to help take some of the icy sting out of the cold water he poured on their competitive aspirations.

Opinions on those players’ choices and outcomes vary from person to person, but everyone can agree that it’s part of what defines our perceptions of those players.

So now it’s Auston Matthews’ moment here. His actions and ultimate decision in the next few weeks ahead will be part of what defines his legacy, both in Toronto and for the first half of his career. It will reveal his priorities, which have always been a little hard to read with him.

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Every player will have their own priority list of factors to consider when it comes to signing a new contract, particularly with a UFA superstar in their prime. But it’s safe to say that three of the biggest factors are often: maxing out money, potential to win with a team, and the city itself.

So, for Matthews, what are his priorities?

Unfortunately, in a hard salary cap system, it’s not always possible to prioritize Nos. 1 and 2 on that list. The salary cap for the 2022-23 season is going to be something like $83.5 million (maybe higher with some NHLPA/NHL negotiating, but let’s use that as a baseline here). A single player can be paid no more than 20 per cent of that total, which means Matthews can be paid no more than $16.7 million season on his new deal.

I’m not suggesting Matthews should get that amount; that’s just his pay ceiling. But make no mistake, if he were hitting free agency this summer, there would be teams willing to offer him close to that number (overpaying Matthews and getting an elite 1C at the cost of not losing an asset is a lot easier to accept and more certain than trying to bottom out in the right year and hoping to win the draft lottery).

There are so many caveats to the items on the priority list above. Max money now isn’t necessarily max money later, and if Matthews takes less money to stay in Toronto and the team wins, he’d make whatever money he left on the table back tenfold over his lifetime (just look at Leafs alumni like Curtis Joseph, Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark, who are all doing just fine for themselves these days without ever winning a Cup with the Leafs!).

It is worth noting that taking less money from a team doesn’t necessarily mean your GM will do good things with those extra dollars and turn it into more players and success. At some point, you may be left feeling like it wasn’t worth the sacrifice. The situation in Toronto is unique though, in that taking less money may directly impact the team’s ability to keep both Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

The city consideration also includes so many factors. Certain tax-free states help pad the No. 1 priority of money. But those states may not come with a fraction of the earning potential and global attention that some of the Canadian markets can offer. If you want to be a hockey player and recognized globally, you’ve only got a few choices of places to play around the league, and Toronto checks that box.

So, with all these considerations, we turn the spotlight to the Maple Leafs star specifically, and are left to ask: What will Matthews prioritize?

I see a player who has earned nearly $65 million in salary by the time he turns 26. And that doesn’t include any of the additional millions he’s earned in sponsorships. Matthews is already set for life, and this next deal will not be a small one, whether it’s the very most he can get paid or not.

When Connor McDavid signed his extension years ago, the rumour was that he was going to sign for $13.5 million, then decided to take $12.5 million to show that his priority was the team and winning. Though that hasn’t yet resulted in a Stanley Cup for McDavid and the Oilers, it’s helped the team facilitate deals like getting Mattias Ekholm at the trade deadline. Nathan MacKinnon has won a Cup and finished second in Hart Trophy voting twice and third once (he was robbed at least once, and has had my first-place vote twice), and signed his contract at a time when he could’ve commanded far more money than he eventually accepted, taking $12.6 million per year to be the Avs’ driving force up front (his deal nets him over $100 million total).

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Again, I ask: Where are Matthews’ priorities?

It’s hard to say, even after years of watching him in the media. His priorities may be the same as MacKinnon and McDavid — he certainly says they are — but hockey fans have learned to judge people not by what they say, but by what they do. So far, he rightfully took a sweetheart contract that got him dollars and control, and the chance to do it again at a young age.

Will he continue to squeeze every drop he can out of the Leafs with this next contract?

Or, with that money in the bank and his sizable reputation, will he prioritize being near his Arizona home in Los Angeles (cause we all know nobody is going to choose Arizona these days), another city that could help him foster more celebrity connections while remaining competitive? Some of those superstardom aspects that would come with being in LA (more friends like Justin Bieber!) do seem to appeal to Matthews.

Or will he truly see the Leafs as a team with a chance to win, take less money to help the team keep better players, and push all-in towards a Stanley Cup?

The Leafs as a franchise and Toronto as a city have a few things going for them here. The city can help his interest (according to my own perception) in being a big name. The team has a chance to win. And they have the chance to pay him well. It checks all those boxes.

This contract situation between the Leafs and Matthews is, to me, not so much a negotiation as it is a discussion between Matthews’ agent Judd Moldaver and new Leafs GM Brad Treliving. How does the team get him in a spot where he’s happy, while Matthews leaves the team the chance to achieve its greater goal of winning a Stanley Cup?

If he wants to stay, then he wants to stay, and you figure out how much money is fair to him to take runs at a Cup while furthering of his personal success and image.

What number is too much to pay Matthews? Is the ceiling something like $14 million if he’ll commit to eight years? Or is it a much shorter deal (which we should anticipate), and something closer to just north of MacKinnon’s $12.6-million number?

Matthews seems to be the first NHLer that, from the start, wants to follow a model closer to that of NBA stars, who take much shorter contracts. Would something like a three-year, $40-million deal ($13.33M AAV) be the answer?

Whatever the situation is, I think it’s unlikely that Matthews will try to squeeze every last dollar out of the Leafs. It’s more likely about where he wants to be, and if that’s in Toronto, it’s probably a reasonable deal. If it’s somewhere else, I’m not sure there’s a Leafs offer that could keep him in Toronto — he’s just made too much money already for that to tip the scales that heavily.

So now we sit and wait. If Matthews decides it’s somewhere else that he wants to be, he’ll surely recognize the better fate of Matthew Tkachuk than that of Johnny Gaudreau, or even John Tavares, in terms of how his next move could impact his legacy. If Matthews goes that route, he’d likely give Treliving a little time (two weeks, maybe?) to facilitate a trade.

At times, it’s been hard to make out what the priorities are for Matthews, but they’re about to be exposed one way or another. And what they are will go a long way towards defining how his career in Toronto is viewed by the faithful in Blue & White who’ve been rooting their hearts out for him since the day that lucky lottery ball bounced their way seven years ago.

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