How Matthews, Maple Leafs settled on deal: ‘He could demand a whole lot more’

Auston Matthews talks about the downfall of losing teammates and the excitement to play with new players brought by Brad Treliving.

TORONTO — For Toronto Maple Leafs fans less than ecstatic about the relatively short term (four years) Auston Matthews committed or anxious about the generous slice of salary pie ($13.25 million, largest in the NHL) the No. 1 centre cut for himself Wednesday, Brad Treliving is quick to provide a splash of truth.

“The bottom line is, you’re talking about one of the world’s best talents. And in the situation he was in, he could come in and demand a whole lot more than what he got. And that’s just the reality,” the Maple Leafs new general manager said Friday, making good on his summer’s top priority. “To me, it was a partnership more than it was a negotiation.

“This got done because Auston decided he wanted to get it done.”

Armed with a full no-movement clause and the possibility of walking himself to unrestricted free agency at age 26 as the most desirable asset on the 2024 market — just in time for the league’s long-stagnant salary ceiling to take an expected five per cent leap — Matthews and his agent, Judd Moldaver, held all leverage when Treliving began this months-long negotiation.

[brightcove videoID=6335593844112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Sure, the Maple Leafs would’ve preferred to lock their 60-goal sniper at five years or more. But Matthews was entertaining an extension as brief as three years and could have easily pressed the franchise for a higher AAV and stirred up uncertainty and a flood of antsy think-pieces on Sept. 20 had he reported to training camp with his paperwork incomplete.

Instead, Matthews consulted family and friends. He met at length with Treliving and new assistant GM–slash–boyhood idol Shane Doan. And he thought long and heavy about the various routes available to him as Moldaver and Treliving grinded away on an extension that will increase Toronto’s window of Stanley Cup contention and shrewdly set Matthews up for another crack at free agency at age 30.

Blessed with a key to the deep Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment vault, Treliving was able to sweeten the deal by frontloading the contract, paying Matthews $49.65 million of his $53 million in signing bonuses, including a mellow $15.925 million direct deposit on July 1.

“It wasn’t something [where] I just woke up and was like, ‘We’re doing a four-year deal.’ I think it was just a lot of long conversations. A lot of thought. A lot of kind of going to bed thinking about it, praying about it. And in the end, this is kind of what I felt most comfortable with,” Matthews said Friday via Zoom.

“My passion, my belief in this team, and loving playing here in the city of Toronto and for these great fans and for the Maple Leafs… I really enjoyed my time here, so I just think getting it done, it’s obviously very exciting.”

Both Treliving and his cornerstone spoke of striking the “right balance” between term and dollars, knowing that a longer commitment would have demanded a steeper AAV, thus leaving less on the table to flesh out a competitive roster from 2024-25 through 2027-28.

That Matthews has now orchestrated two mid-length, eight-figure deals for himself (he inked a five-year pact with former GM Kyle Dubas heading to RFA status) makes him unique in a contact sport where superstars routinely target eight-year, max-term security.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done things just to be different. I just felt strongly in my situation, in my position that this was the best deal for myself and the best deal for the team,” Matthews explained.

[brightcove videoID=6335596268112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Generational wealth established, a Hart Trophy and duelling Rockets on the mantle, Matthews brought up a more pertinent question during the negotiation process: How do we win?

“What I’ve really learned through this process is how smart he is. He takes in a lot of information. He’s an independent thinker. He’s very cerebral,” Treliving said. “It wasn’t necessarily a process of just going down there [to Arizona] and trying to hammer out a contract. It was giving him an overview — where do I see the team and things that we’d like to try to do, get his thoughts, but then just have some general conversations about life and get to know each other.

“I think we found the sweet spot.”

That Matthews himself chose to wrap up the deal well in advance of media day shows leadership. He wanted his future to be a nonissue, to keep his and his teammates’ focus on the ice.

“I think you’ve seen the leadership and the maturity rise, along with his game and the balance of his impact as a player, on and off the ice, and what he means to the team and the sport in general,” John Tavares told reporters Wednesday.

And so, with Matthews locked up, Treliving must now revisit priority No. 2, William Nylander, another stud 2024 UFA who’d prefer to re-sign — but one who announced Wednesday that he is in no big hurry to settle his incoming raise.

“We will continue to work at William’s. William is a terrific player. He’s a star, and you want to keep your good players,” Treliving said. “We have time. William’s got a year left on his contract. We will continue to work away at it and, hopefully, when we have good news, we will be sure to share it.”

[brightcove videoID=6335596762112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

While Matthews underlines his own desire to wrap the matter up swiftly, he recognizes Nylander — a 40-goal stud earning $6.9 million — has yet to reap his greatest payday.

“Everybody’s in a different position and different situation. Obviously, I love Willy. And I’ve enjoyed playing with him, being his teammate, being his friend,” Matthews said.

“I hope everything works out. I’m sure it will. He’s obviously his own man, and he’ll make his own decisions, and I hope he’s a Maple Leaf for a really long time as well.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.