NHL insider Andy Strickland has made a bold statement when it comes to Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Saying that the Maple Leafs will have no choice but to trade Matthews this summer if the superstar forward goes unsigned, he asks, “You gonna lose him for nothin’?”
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Strickland started by asking, “Has anyone mentioned, by the way, that Auston Matthews is going to be traded this offseason?” He went on to argue that the dynamic center has one more season on his current deal and he believes it is inevitable that Matthews is dealt because “I don’t think he’s going to re-sign there.”
Obviously, these comments will anger Maple Leafs’ fans who are likely tired of the narrative that Matthews will leave at the first opportunity, but Strickland believes this is a real possibility unless the team goes all the way this season. When you consider that Matthews has a no-move clause that kicks in on July 1, 2023, and that’s the first date the Leafs can negotiate an extension, it creates an interesting and potentially risky dynamic between the player and the team.
What The Heck Is Strickland Talking About?
Immediate questions will surface from Maple Leafs’ fans who argue that Strickland is off his rocker, but he brings up the point because Matthews will have a ton of leverage as a pending UFA who can go virtually anywhere he wants as early as the 2024-25 season. Come July 1, he can also shoot down any trade he so chooses. He’s finishing up a contract that pays him $11.64 million per season and if the Leafs don’t win (frankly, even if they do) there’s thought Matthews might explore his options and see what teams can afford to pay him on the open market.
If the Maple Leafs get wind that Matthews is thinking about this, he becomes a player much like Matthew Tkachuk did last season when the Calgary Flames knew he wasn’t sticking around and shipped him off to the Florida Panthers to maximize what the organization could get for the player versus letting him walk for nothing. Strickland argues that anything short of the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup, “If they lose early, and you’re going to get a boatload — obviously for Matthews — you can’t lose him for nothing and you’ll probably have to trade him this summer.” The Leafs almost might not want to give Matthews the power to steer the ship in whichever direction he sees fit.
Who Would Step Up and Trade for Matthews?
Strickland then asked his listeners who might step up and trade for Matthews this summer. As attractive of an option as it would be to add a player of his caliber, there are certain things that wouldn’t make it a slam dunk for all 31 other NHL clubs.
First, Matthews is going to become the highest-paid player in the NHL. That’s a given based on the timing of his contract coming due, the numbers he’s put up over the past few seasons, and the marquee draw he’s become for the NHL and will be for any team that acquires him. Not every team can afford to pay Matthews $13-$14 million per season, even if the cap jumps. For some, he’s simply financially out of their reach.
Second, who has the first-round picks required to land him? Strickland jokes that it will take 20 first-rounders and while that’s hyperbole, the reality is, whatever team looks at Matthews will need multiple first-round picks, quality prospects, and likely a player or two that can help the Maple Leafs who will absolutely not want to rebuild. Part of the reason the summer becomes the trade window to consider is that the Leafs can maximize the return by opening up the floor to the highest number of potential bidders.
Would Matthews Really Leave?
The reality is, no one knows what Matthews is thinking when it comes to his future in the NHL. He’s said all the right things and noted that he loves playing in Toronto, but priorities change based on a team’s success. If the Leafs win, that will surely help keep one of the best players in the game where he is. At the same time, if the Leafs are bounced in a very loaded Eastern Conference playoff matchup within the first two rounds, all bets are off.
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The question might not be if Matthews would leave, it’s what Maple Leafs’ management is willing to risk if Matthews doesn’t commit to staying. Under no circumstances can the Leafs let their franchise player exit without getting a massive return. This is not Zach Hyman or Frederik Andersen, or even Michael Bunting should he choose to test free agency this summer. This is a player that would garner a return bigger than any player traded in the last 20 years. You can’t be the GM who passes that up if you aren’t sure Matthews is sticking around.
For now, the Leafs should focus on going as far as they can in the playoffs this year. But, as soon as they are eligible in the offseason, the focus should shift to Matthews committing to the franchise for the long haul. Anything less means exploring the organization’s options and that will open up all sorts of speculation and the window to a potential trade.
Strickland might have been exaggerating about the likelihood Matthews is moved, but his point isn’t without merit. The Leafs need a commitment and anything less should see the team trying to get the most they can for the superstar.