July 1 Is Critical Date Of No Return for the Maple Leafs and Matthews

Auston Matthews says he wants to stay in Toronto and that his intent is to re-sign with the team. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his interest in staying put might not be enough. Considering July 1, 2023, is the critical date that the two sides need to figure out an extension — without a dark cloud of his future looming over the 2023-24 season — wanting to stay and actually signing an extension are two completely different things.

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There are plenty of reasons the Toronto Maple Leafs can’t simply take their time with a Matthews extension, the biggest of which is that they need the flexibility to pivot.

Maple Leafs Need to Avoid the Matthews No-Move Clause

On July 1, the final season of Matthews’ current contract kicks in, and with it, a no-move clause that has the potential to be disastrous for the team. Sure, there are situations in which a player will still allow for a move if both sides agree that there’s no future in his current location, but it’s not often that happens and when it comes, the player typically selects one or two teams they are willing to go and the organization making the trade get pennies on the dollar. Matthews might be comfortable with that, but under no circumstances can the Leafs walk themselves into that situation.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On July 1, Matthews gets all the leverage. If he hasn’t finalized a contract with the team to stick around, he immediately moves into a position to dictate where he goes, should he decide that staying in Toronto isn’t in the cards. Again, he’s said he wants to stick around, but if the two sides are far apart on money, or the Leafs say, ‘Hey, we’d like to keep you, but the only way to build a contender is if you take less than you’d get as a UFA.’. He may or may not want to do that.

If he doesn’t want to do so, the Maple Leafs need to weigh their options before they have no options.

The Maple Leafs Need Flexibility

If the next few weeks pass and the two sides are far apart, the Maple Leafs need to know they have teams they can call with interest in acquiring the superstar. For 31 other NHL clubs, there is a difference between having an interest in Matthews and being able to afford him. Not every team can do so and the Leafs will need to know where to turn if the narrative quickly shifts.

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On July 1, Toronto — and whoever is the GM at the time – will need to talk to Matthews about his willingness to go somewhere. No move can happen after that date without his say so and that puts the Leafs in a tough situation. Not only are they stuck working with a small list of teams that can actually afford whatever Matthews’ next contract is going to be, but after July 1, that list gets widdled down in a major way because Matthews has to sign off.

Making a massive trade the size of any deal that would include Matthews isn’t going to be a win for Toronto if the player is in control of the situation.

The Rest of the Roster Is Based on Matthews’ Decision

What Toronto does with their roster, in large part, has everything to do with the direction Matthews heads over the next number of days. If June rolls by and the two sides haven’t moved forward in negotiations and a deal doesn’t look likely, that will be because Matthews wants top dollar and it hampers the organization’s ability to extend William Nylander or sign players like Michael Bunting, Ilya Samsonov, and Ryan O’Reilly, among others. To a lesser extent, it also creates potential hurdles when it comes to a future deal for a player like Matthew Knies. Frankly, every extra penny Matthews wants is a penny less to give to another player.

The Leafs can make small moves and tinker with the lineup while Matthew’s situation is up in the air. Beyond that, everything is at a standstill until his situation is figured out.

And, if the Leafs and Matthews ultimately decide his future is elsewhere, Toronto immediately needs to move into buy mode in free agency. Getting ahead of other teams in a rather weak free agency market will be key. Finding a player to replace Matthews isn’t going to happen, but the team will need to use the money they’ll save on his contract to find goal-scoring on the open market.

Trading Matthews might take time. Time lost in free agency could be critical to an organization that wants to not only remain in contention but move past the second round of the playoffs.