Matthews Deal Dramatically Changes Free Agent Landscape

Auston Matthews signed for a huge chunk of money on Tuesday — a five-year contract extension worth $58.17 million, with an annual cap hit of $11.634. But, the sheer size of the contract may not be the most interesting part of this deal — at least not moving forward for the rest of the NHL.

Matthews contract is structured in such a way that a staggering 93% of this contract will be made up of signing bonuses. Bob McKenzie of TSN broke the contract down on Twitter:

For Toronto, as the days pass, this may not be the focus of the conversation surrounding Tuesday’s news. There’s so much going on in Leafs Nation, this will just be one small topic of conversation.

That said, it would be naive not to realize how much this deal affects the rest of the league. The Maple Leafs are a team that has money. Spending it today versus tomorrow is no big deal. The same cannot be said for a huge number of NHL teams not located in the center of the hockey universe and with a 10-year waiting list for season tickets.

Related: Matthews Signs Contract Extension With Maple Leafs

Small Market NHL Team Concerns

Perhaps lesser extent, there may be other teams in the NHL in a similar situation to the Maple Leafs. Franchises like the New York Rangers, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, and others are not strapped for cash. These are profitable franchises who aren’t shy about flopping down somewhere between $50 and $100 million in bonuses to a player they’d rather not lose. What about teams like the Ottawa Senators, the Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche, Arizona Coyotes or Columbus Blue Jackets?

Panarin Bobrovsky Blue Jackets
If you can look past the Panarin and Bobrovsky situations, you’ll see these Blue Jackets are still in a good place. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Teams like these just watched the landscape for restricted and unrestricted free agents change in a matter of minutes. It will be a challenge for many of these teams to do what the Maple Leafs just did.

As the players try to secure themselves deals that are essentially lockout proof, is it realistic to expect every team will just willingly hand over the kind of money upfront? Maybe, but maybe not.

Related: NHL Rumors: Chiasson, Seabrook, Senators, Islanders, More

The UFA Market Just Got Interesting

In Ottawa, the team is challenged with the task of trying to convince players like Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Codi Ceci, and others to stay put despite the lure of free agency. With this Matthews deal, that lure just got exponentially more attractive for players. The Senators can’t afford to structure 80%-90% of a contract extension for Duchene in signing bonuses and they certainly can’t do it for both Duchene and Stone. That said, some team will which means both Duchene and Stone might test their luck in free agency. Before today, it might have been a maybe.

Matt Duchene Cody Ceci Senators
Ottawa Senators Matt Duchene celebrates his second goal of the game with teammate Cody Ceci (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

What about in Columbus where the Blue Jackets are trying to figure out their respective situations with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky? It can be argued neither player was expected to stick it out, but the Blue Jackets certainly have to see this type of structured contract and say to themselves, ‘ok, this is potentially what we’re competing with now’.

On the other side of that coin, teams like the Florida Panthers who are rumored to have interest in both Bobrovsky and Panarin might be looking at the Matthews deal and saying, ‘Whoa. Maybe we can’t afford to land both guys.. Sure, we can offer tax-free money, but that’s still a lot of money.’ The combination of Panarin and Bobrovsky could cost the Panthers in the neighborhood of $20 million-plus in signing bonuses. Florida isn’t exactly swimming in cash but the incentive of tax-free bonuses will be appealing.

Related: NHL Trade Deadline: Our Top 10 Must-Watch List

What About the RFA Market?

Some might argue the UFA market and the RFA market are very different. That may be true. Part of the reason the Matthews deal was structured in the way it was structured was to get the star center through a year of unrestricted free agency but keep the cap hit for the Maple Leafs as low as humanly possible. In Toronto, there will be questions about this approach since the approach was more about the salary cap than control of a player that could now leave in six seasons.

Consider the sheer quality of RFA’s on the market in the NHL this season and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there will be some major discussions and serious decisions about how each franchise approaches their own talent. There will also be discussions between players and their agents about sticking with a team for a full eight seasons versus a shorter term with bigger upfront guarantees.

Patrik Laine, Bryan Little
Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

In Winnipeg, the Jets have Patrik Laine who is bound to get a huge raise. In Colorado, Mikko Rantanen is going to get paid. In Vegas, the Golden Knights have to worry about William Karlsson and in Calgary, the Flames will have to make a decision on Matthew Tkachuk… just to name a few. Let’s not forget, the Maple Leafs aren’t done. By signing this deal with Matthews, they just told Mitch Marner, ‘this is what we’re willing to do.’

What’s to say some of these players aren’t eyeing this deal for Matthews and realizing that they can have their cake and eat it too? Matthews is hardly losing anything by signing for three fewer years than he could have. He’s going to make crazy money upfront on this deal and he gives himself a massive window to re-sign again at the age of 26.

How will teams handle this change in attitude by the players? Will they be quick to resist letting their young stars sign for less term, paying more upfront but lowering the potential cap hit? Will teams insist they keep their stars as long as possible and will that insistence irk the players who have more control than ever?

At the end of the day, Matthews is an interesting case study because he’s just that good a player. But, there are some very talented free agents on the market this year and they just witnessed the landscape of their negotiations potentially change in a major way.

This could be a very interesting summer.