A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Obviously, I would’ve liked to not fall on the computer’s keyboard and, I guess, use my fingers as the landing point.
1. When Auston Matthews does not re-sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1 and triggers his full no-move clause, we anticipate the franchise’s fan base to explode into that hilarious Michael Scott gif.
Because, to be clear: Matthews will not be renewing his vows to his Canadian team on Canada Day.
Now, before the diehards go throwing themselves in front of Lakeshore traffic, that certainly does not mean the 2022 Hart Trophy winner won’t eventually be extended for what we imagine will be a four- or five-year pact at a Nathan MacKinnon–eclipsing AAV. An agreement that should set the sniper up for a third monster pay day in his early 30s, under an elevated salary cap.
We’ll take Matthews at his word.
“Yeah, of course. My intention is to be here,” Matthews said upon season’s end. “I think I’ve (reiterated) that before, how much I enjoy playing here and what it means to me, the organization, my teammates and how much I just enjoy being here.
“I think it’s important, and it will all work itself out in due time.”
There is no rush on the part of the player or his agent, Judd Moldaver.
And why would there be?
Yes, Matthews (and his fellow Core Four members) received a reassuring phone call from Brendan Shanahan after the president fired well-liked GM Kyle Dubas on May 19.
But, with just five weeks until his no-movement clause kicks in, the superstar has roughly about as much knowledge as you. He has no clue who will be negotiating his next contract, who will be coaching him, who will be on his line, or who will be on the roster.
“My belief in our core players and the guys that have been here has never wavered,” said Matthews, dressed in a Leafs cap and hoodie. “And I still believe in that.”
No chance he recommits without knowing the grand plan. There are too many unknowns here, and the July 1 “deadline” in this case only applies to management, not the player.
Further, what urgency would Matthews have to sign until he sees the new vision in action for at least a few games? What does life under GM Y and Coach X feel like? Are the Maple Leafs winning in October and November?
Sure, the lack of certainty will make for nervous fans and repetitive media questions if/when talks drag past summer.
That doesn’t mean the sky is falling, though.
Toronto’s last major impending UFA, Morgan Rielly, reupped amicably on Oct. 29.
Moldaver’s last major impending free agents, Zach Werenski and Roman Josi, reupped on July 29 and Oct. 29 of their contract years.
Last season’s highest-profile UFAs-to-be, MacKinnon and David Pastrnak, signed on Sept. 20 and March 2, respectively.
Even the quickest franchise stars to re-sign monster long-term deals, Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in their 2014 prime, did so on July 9. Not July 1.
“Without making any promises, we will look at everything in the organization and try to make decisions that will make us better,” Shanahan replied, when asked about his own faith in staying the course. “That might be not on the timeline that everyone wants. It might not occur just this summer. It might occur during the season. It might occur at the next trade deadline. But just being different doesn’t solve something.”
Let’s clear something else up.
Yes, Matthews, like many Maple Leafs players, absolutely had a great relationship with Dubas.
No, Dubas’s firing does not alter Matthews’ intentions to re-up in Toronto.
The Leafs’ most public GM candidate, Brad Treliving, and others have surely reached out to Matthews’ camp and will make relationship-building with the 2024 UFA a high priority in both their interview pitches and early weeks on the job.
Now, for the slightly scary part.
The new Leafs GM will have zero power if, somehow, the Matthews file takes an unexpected sour turn.
Pastrnak went into his contract season with a 10-team no-trade clause. MacKinnon held a 19-team yes-trade list.
Matthews’ full NMC is relatively rare. (Mitch Marner has one for his final two years.)
Back in February 2019, when Matthews signed his current contract, Dubas resisted adding the NMC, but Moldaver flexed his leverage. Marner’s camp wanted identical security when his negotiation rolled around.
You can blame Dubas for not drawing a harder line, or you can credit the agents for teeing up their stars for the most control possible.
Regardless, that leverage exercised five years ago will only multiply once July 1 passes without Matthews’ autograph under Maple Leafs letterhead.
2. No question, Matthews’ career-low 12.2 shooting percentage in 2022-23, which dropped further (to 10.2) in the playoffs, can partly be attributed to the hand injury he played through and nagged him until the end.
That was one of multiple ailments the star dealt with. He also took puck off the foot in practice that bothered him late. He’s not a complainer, and certainly not alone in needing to perform through pain.
“It’s kinda the nature of the game and the nature of playoffs, especially,“ Matthews said. “In the end, it’s my job to push through that and do what I can to help the team win.”
What’s not clear here is if Matthews’ hand injury is linked to the wrist that required surgery in August 2021 or if he absolutely will not need surgery at some point this off-season.
3. While true that Shanahan reached out to his core players in the wake of Dubas’s firing, I’d be surprised if he outright guaranteed they’d all be back in the fall.
Maybe he did. I don’t know.
But imagine the president interviewing experienced candidates, preferably ones with the clout and conviction to make bold decisions, and then telling the new GM: “By the way, I already promised all our core players that they’re staying put. Otherwise, go nuts with the fringes of the roster!”
Seems a little backward, no?
4. If Doug Armstrong wished, he could easily release a statement along the lines of this: I was hired by the St. Louis Blues, love working for the organization and have zero intention of exploring any other opportunities while under contract through 2025-26.
He hasn’t done that, yet. Nor does he have to.
The Toronto speculation has been great marketing for Armstrong, and the Maple Leafs would be wise to not limit their search to the unemployed.
5. Some fun old Maple Leafs tales got dusted off by Rick Vaive on this week’s edition of Spittin’ Chiclets.
Vaive also dropped this nugget: Former Leafs held a draft to see who among them got to squeeze into the alumni suite for home playoff games. The box holds roughly 20 people, and those tickets are in demand by former Buds and their families.
“Great food. Free booze,” Vaive said.
6. OK, no more Leafs. Pinkie swear.
Quote of the Week comes via Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy on the improvement of William Karlsson coinciding with his new fatherhood:
“It’s worked out well for us. I think that’s four babies for us. So, we might have to call the guys up next August to get to work. Call it a summer project.”
7. That one of Paul Maurice, Peter DeBoer or Cassidy will get to hoist their first Stanley Cup as a head coach should make hockey fans happy.
Their journeys have been long and winding, and all three have proven their worth at multiple stops.
One of these lifers will make for a helluva Cup–hoisting story.
8. Goalie-hungry GMs may wish to roll the dice on a UFA such as Tristan Jarry, Frederik Andersen or Adin Hill’s soaring stock.
But the surest bet for an upgrade in net should be available via trade.
That’s Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck, who has one year left at a reasonable $6.17-million cap hit and zero trade protection. (A catch: The 2020 Vezina champ’s next contract will be less reasonable, and his actual 2023-24 base salary is $7.5 million.)
The Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, if they cut bait on Jarry, will surely be in the market.
So, too, will the Buffalo Sabres.
Sabres GM Kevyn Adams was so eager to bring in an experienced goaltender on the 2022 draft floor, he tried to land Matt Murray from Ottawa. Murray blocked the deal. Hellebuyck has no such option.
A Hellebuyck–Devon Levi tandem would be something to get excited about. It should be enough for the Sabres — who finish their season with a 24th-ranked .890 save percentage — to finally end their epic playoff drought.
We’re bullish on Levi, but he needs a mentor.
Hellebuyck — who has played more games (445) and faced more shots (13,604) than any other goalie in the past eight years — needs a better work/rest balance.
Considering the picks and prospects Adams could offer, a trade makes a ton of sense.
9. Bravo to Kyle Okposo and the Sabres for coming to quick terms on a one-year, $2.5-million extension for the captain.
Sure, a chunk of the forward’s value will come off the ice, as he’s a trusted leader in a young room, but he can still pitch in a reduced role on it.
“I can’t say enough good things about him as a person, what he’s done in the locker room, the way he carries the message from Donny (Granato) and the coaching staff through to the team, his selflessness, to be able to mentor and bring along players,” Adams told reporters at season’s end.
“I see it over and over again, day after day, players are down, whatever’s going on in their life, they’re talking to him. And I just think it’s we’re lucky to have him.”
The deal should assure the 35-year-old (984 games played) of a 1,000-game celebration.
Despite coming up short in the wild-card race, Okposo soon realized he wanted to another tour.
“There’s definitely some unfinished business,” Okposo told reporters, aware that making playoffs will be the expectation in 2024. “We can’t run from that. You have to set your goal.
“You set the goal of winning a Stanley Cup. The time is now. Our window, I think it’s opening, and we have to be prepared for that.”
10. In his split-second calculations to determine who will be the shooter on an oncoming 2-on-1 rush, an Eastern Conference goaltender reveals that if he sees one player with a significantly higher cap hit than the other, he’ll bet that the less-expensive player will defer to the money-maker.
11. Heading toward a 2023 UFA market clamouring for proven centremen, Jordan Staal wasted no time proclaiming his allegiances after the Hurricanes’ elimination.
“I want to be here. I want to be a part of this group. I love these guys, and I love this organization,” Staal told reporters, confident he’ll re-sign. “I want to finish my career off here.”
The 34-year-old captain will no doubt need to take a pay cut from his $6-million salary, but he’s willing to do so.
Carolina also faces decisions on veteran UFAs Andersen, Antti Raanta, Max Pacioretty, Shayne Gostisbehere, Calvin De Haan, Jesper Fast, Paul Stastny, MacKenzie MacEachren and Derek Stepan.
12. Of the Florida Panthers’ magical run, Paul Maurice is the brains, Sam Bennett is the muscle, Radkos Gudas is the mystery, Matthew Tkachuk is the heart and Sergei Bobrovsky is the MVP.
But Aleksander Brakov’s fake between-the-legs shot is the highlight …