Skip to main content

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews smiles at a press conference in Toronto on Feb. 2, 2019.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Auston Matthews is having his cake and eating it too and so are the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or at least as much as the salary cap will let them.

Matthews, 21, agreed to a five-year, US$58.17-million contract on Tuesday, which has an average annual value (AAV) of US$11.634-million. He could have insisted on the maximum term allowed under the NHL’s collective agreement, eight years, and for a little higher AAV than the highest-paid player in the league, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, who averages US$12.5-million. But this is where the cake comes in.

By lowering his initial demand for an eight-year deal to five and in turn lowering the AAV, Matthews allowed the Leafs some relief on the salary cap, perhaps about US$2-million a year, but they think it is enough to get their other budding superstar, Mitch Marner, signed this summer along with a few other pending restricted free agents.

That means Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas, head coach Mike Babcock and the rest of the Leafs will have a window of about five or six years where the core of this talented young team can be kept together in the hopes of winning Toronto’s first Stanley Cup since 1967. In a salary cap world, that is about the best you can hope for. Dubas still has a lot of financial gymnastics ahead of him, especially with Marner, but right now he has the Leafs in a good place.

At the same time, Matthews may have left some money and term on the table but a five-year deal takes him to unrestricted free agency, where players really cash in, à la his teammate John Tavares, who signed with the Leafs last summer for seven years at US$11-million a year. In five years, assuming the cap grows as it usually has along with the NHL’s revenues, and Matthews’s bet on himself as a player pays off, he will make considerably more each year than Tavares.

“It’s a special day,” Matthews said of his new deal. “I love playing here. I love this city, my teammates, management, the whole staff from top to bottom.

“I don’t think there’s anything like playing in this city, from our fans, the support we get day-in and day-out, walking around the street getting recognized. That’s not something I ever really imagined when I was a kid growing up in Arizona, to play in a market like this. It’s definitely something I don’t take for granted.”

Matthews and his representatives, Judd Moldaver and Jeff Jackson, started the negotiations looking for an eight-year deal and a higher AAV than what they settled for. But through discussions with Dubas about what was necessary to ensure the Leafs had the best chance to challenge for the Stanley Cup, they lowered their demand to a five-year term.

It was the same strategy employed by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when they came out of their three-year entry contracts. The Pittsburgh Penguins have three Stanley Cups since 2009 to show for it.

“We understand the cap restraints we have and the league and every single team has,” Matthews said. “We want to accomplish our ultimate goal, the Stanley Cup, and make this city proud. We’re working towards that every day.”

Dubas was happy they came around. By last week, he implied, he had enough of an idea of what Matthews would accept that he was able to complete the trade for defenceman Jake Muzzin and his cap-friendly AAV of US$4-million. That means if Jake Gardiner won’t take a hometown discount when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer, letting him go won’t hurt as much.

“We’re trying to build a team that can have sustained success and not just contend once,” Dubas said. “I think if you look, there’s a litany of teams across every professional sport. They’re very good teams for a long time but they can’t push it across the finish line. I think a lot of that is luck-related and we want to give ourselves the maximum number of chances we can to make a real good go at it.”

For next season, Dubas now has about $US18-million of room under the projected salary cap of US$83-million. The players he has to fit inside that are Marner, Gardiner, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Par Lindholm, Garret Sparks, Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey and Igor Ozhiganov. Marner, Kapanen, Johnsson and perhaps Gardiner are the priorities.

Marner’s camp has already said contract negotiations will have to wait until the summer. Dubas said Tuesday he will respect that. But when talks begin, the GM will have to play some hardball.

With US$29.6-million tied up in Matthews, Tavares and William Nylander next season, adding Marner for an AAV of $US12-million or more means nearly half of the payroll will be taken up by four players. And don’t think McDavid’s league-high US$12.5-million AAV represents a ceiling for Marner. It didn’t for Matthews when he was thinking about an eight-year deal because the assumption is NHL revenues are on the rise, taking player salaries along for the ride.

But if Dubas hopes to avoid having to trade Kapanen or Johnsson or losing Gardiner to free agency (shedding Patrick Marleau’s US$6.25-million might work, but 39-year-olds are hard to move at that price), he has to talk Marner into lowering his demands on an average salary. Something under US$10-million would be best, which would have to be a five-year term.

A tall order, considering Marner is having a better season than Matthews so far.