Solid Deal for Maple Leafs and for Matthews

Unlike William Nylander, Auston Matthews’ signing was announced without much drama. On Tuesday, it was announced that the Toronto Maple Leafs signed their young superstar centre to a five-year contract extension. Here are the numbers: the deal is worth $58.17 million, meaning Matthews will have an annual cap hit of $11.634 million from 2019-20 through the 2023-24 season.

Matthews’ Signing is Good News Because?

Already Maple Leaf fans are worrying about the numbers, and some fans have noted that Mitch Marner might have to leave the team because the Maple Leafs are out of cap space to sign him. Fans somehow think general manager Kyle Dubas has exploded the salary cap without space left to sign anyone else. But I don’t think that’s true. Instead, I believe there are at least six reasons why signing Matthews to a contract extension now is a good idea.

Reason #1: Matthews Is a Generational Talent

There aren’t many NHL players as talented as Matthews. When the Leafs drafted Matthews with the first-overall pick in the 2016 Draft, it was no surprise. He had been on everyone’s radar for almost two years. He broke into the league quickly, scoring four goals in his NHL debut. He had a great rookie season and hasn’t slowed down. The 21-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona has scored 97 goals and 81 assists in 182 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs. That’s almost a point-a-game pace, and he’s getting better.

Matthews Tavares Andersen Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen celebrates with John Tavares and Auston Matthews. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

In his third season with the Maple Leafs, Matthews has 23 goals and 23 assists in 38 games. And this is a season when he was hampered with a shoulder injury and by the absence of regular sidekick Nylander, who spent most of the last two seasons playing on Matthews’ right wing.

Although Nylander hasn’t rebounded to form and their unique chemistry hasn’t been there this season, there’s no reason it won’t re-ignite when the two play together again, which I believe will happen. The Maple Leafs have committed to keeping these two young players together for the next five seasons. That’s good news for Maple Leaf fans.

Matthews has represented Toronto at the NHL All-Star Game in each of his three seasons. When he joined the team, he made them immediately better. In his rookie season, he led the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. And he won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie. His success will lead the team this season, plus five more.

Reason #2: Matthews’ Signing Secures Maple Leafs’ Future

Since his rookie season, Matthews has been the face of the Maple Leafs. His signing means he will continue to be that face for the foreseeable future. His signing helps clear the picture for the team. Say what you want, but with Matthews signed, Marner, who’s also looking for a new contract, is likely to sign as well. The Maple Leafs are a team a good NHL player like Marner will want to be part of.

Related – Maple Leaf Questions & Rumors: Matthews, Marner, Nylander & Gardiner

That said, it’s not as if all the Maple Leafs player decisions are over. Besides Matthews, whose contract is now settled, and Marner, whose agent has asked to wait until season’s end before working on a new deal, the team has a number of pending restricted and unrestricted free agents to sign.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

These RFAs include Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Igor Ozhiganov and Garret Sparks. UFAs include Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm and Tyler Ennis. Whatever decisions Dubas makes about these players, one thing is certain: the Maple Leafs will have Matthews under contract for a long time and that will help the team sign the players it will want from this group.

Reason #3: The 5-Year Term Lowers the Salary Cap Hit

Matthews and his agents might have been arguing for an eight-year extension, but the contract Matthews signed makes the cap hit manageable. As Pierre LeBrun noted, “I think the conversation on an eight-year deal would have been focused on an AAV around 13.5 to 14…. the five-year deal is best possible move for the Leafs from the perspective of cap flexibility next five years or so.”

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Bob McKenzie added, “There’s a premium to be paid for elite goal scorers … an 8-year deal would’ve come in north of McDavid’s $12.5M by $1M or more — allows TOR to keep core pieces together for at least 5/6 years.” In fact, such a long-term deal might have come in higher than what Connor McDavid would have made, perhaps almost $14 million per season.

Reason #4: The Deal Is Done Now

That Matthews signed now instead of during the summer is good for the Maple Leafs. It tells other players that the team has a vision and isn’t hesitant to follow it. My sense is that Marner will see Matthews’ willingness to take less money over less time so things can work for the team as a good thing. I’m also guessing that he’s willing to also buy into that same mentality. Remember, Matthews is from Arizona. Marner, who’s from the Toronto area, is likely (as Tavares was) to want to stay close to home to play. That’s good news for the Maple Leafs.

Reason #5: Signing Bonuses Show the Maple Leafs’ Willingness to Spend

The Maple Leafs are a rich team that can pay signing bonuses. Such signing bonuses tell players the team will pay upfront for players. Because signing bonuses are guaranteed, the player receives the money no matter what happens to the contract. As a result, players like Marner or Kasperi Kanapen could make cash NOW by taking less than what their annual salary might normally be. And, having one’s money up front can’t be bad. It doesn’t take a really smart accountant to invest the $15.2 million wisely: even at three percent a year, the player would make almost $600,000 per year on $15.2 million.

Reason #6: Maple Leafs Just Made Life Difficult for Other Teams

By signing Matthews to this contract, the Maple Leafs just set the market for other RFAs. Undoubtedly, Matthews was the cream of the RFA crop, but now every other NHL team with a major RFA has to look at this deal and see it as the measuring stick for what it will cost to keep their best players. The Maple Leafs might have made it harder for other teams to sign their own good players. That’s good for the Maple Leafs and bad for other teams.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

A Sense of Relief After a Season of Drama

Matthews’ signing is good news for the Maple Leafs, and good for his agents to get it done now. That Matthews wanted to stay in Toronto has to be a sigh of relief for the Maple Leafs after months of negotiating Nylander’s holdout that ended on Dec. 1.

Matthews, who was eligible to sign an eight-year extension, made life easier for his team. Insisting on eight years would have complicated the team’s long-term salary cap outlook. That said, it isn’t like he didn’t receive something in return. Now he can sell his skills, should he wish to, on the open market as an unrestricted free agent at age 26. He will still be a young man then and, unless something very unusual happens, he will become an even wealthier young man.