The Auston Matthews extension is the rare contract that looks like a win for both the player and the team. Matthews gets real money with the chance to earn more before he’s washed, while the Toronto Maple Leafs lock up the league’s best goal scorer over the past seven years at a fair number, and secure him through his prime.
As strange as it sounds, Matthews has been in a bit of a tough spot regarding the public perception of his latest contract negotiation which, as you may have heard, came in at four years and $13.25 million per. That’s because it was being negotiated at a time when things were particularly tense in Leaf-land, in the wake of another disappointing playoff exit, and with Toronto wedged up against the salary cap like just about every other team in the league.
Nathan MacKinnon did Matthews no favours by taking an under-market value contract one year ago to briefly make him the league’s highest paid player, while still basking in the reflected glow of the Stanley Cup he had just brought home to Colorado a few months before.
Since the Leafs haven’t lived up to post-season expectations and a Cup-winning star like MacKinnon signed for less than his actual value, there was very real pressure on Matthews to also take less money than he’s worth, especially with the cap so tight.
And by “worth” I mean “what would a team give Matthews as a UFA 10 months from now?” On Real Kyper and Bourne, the number $15 million per season had come up, and him staying with the Leafs at $14 million seemed likely.
Of course, Matthews had really set himself up for a big ol’ payday. Connor McDavid’s contract has become irrelevant, as it was signed six years ago in the summer of 2017, so his $12.5 million AAV as a “ceiling” was a non-factor.
Past the first year of Matthews’ new extension, the Leafs are buying seasons that will all be played under a much higher salary cap. Matthews was also negotiating as a 25-year-old who’s won a Hart Trophy, two Rocket Richard Trophies, plays a premium position and wins draws and defends. He’s become not just the face of the Leafs, but one of the faces of the league at large.
There’s no doubt Matthews could’ve played out this season under his full no-movement clause (whether he opted to be traded or not) and got paid well more than he ended up taking from the Leafs on this latest deal.
But, it’s not perfect, so some fans will have a hard time with it. If you’re a Matthews doubter, this doesn’t convince you of anything. If you liked him already, this won’t do anything to dissuade that.
Whatever camp a fan is in, I don’t think there’s much of an argument to be made that this contract is some sort of outlier that will hamstring the Leafs in the years to come. Ever since Matthews came to Toronto he’s been the best goal scorer in the NHL by miles, and this contract should buy up his prime years. He’d equal that value even if he declines:
He’s elite, and for the Leafs to keep a guy who’s comfortable in the media spotlight — and who has shown he can perform here — it’s not a small victory.
One other note on the “victory” thing: I’m not entirely sure the four-year term is a bad thing for the Leafs. Matthews wasn’t his best self last season, and he will be 31 by the time this extension ends. The Leafs leave themselves with an opportunity to re-assess the direction they want to take and will have that flexibility in five years’ time. If these Leafs teams don’t win a Cup over the next few seasons, it could be tear down time anyway, and they may want to move on from Matthews.
To fans who don’t buy the above and hate that Matthews didn’t sign for eight years, as some other great players have: I’d say he has just signed his third contract with the Leafs and committed to the team through 13 seasons of his career now. Toronto can be a lot. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a guy who’s shown that much loyalty to want to reassess if it doesn’t work over a (baker’s) dozen years.
And I’ve heard the complaints that he hasn’t won anything yet, or doesn’t perform to some expectations in the playoffs, to which I say: Correct. That’s why they’re not paying him $15.25 million.
In all, this is the rare contract where I think the debates can be about the merits of the player — can he get it done in Toronto? Will he rise up one year and lead this team through? — rather than debating who won the business side of the deal.
It looks like a fair one from where I sit, with the massive upside for fans that they get to watch one of the world’s best goal scorers for five more seasons. That’s got some value in itself.