Maple Leafs May Have Reason to Trade Matthews After 2021-22 Season

Howard Berger, in his Between The Posts Blog on August 3, dropped a bombshell that hasn’t seemed to have received much attention. However, we believe it’s worth both paying attention to and considering its implications.

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Quoting a source he claims is a “person that recently worked for Brendan Shanahan,” the person wishing to not be identified was quoted as saying: “It doesn’t matter if the Leafs miss the playoffs, get knocked out again in the first round or win the Stanley Cup, one of Matthews, Marner or Nylander will be traded — either at the regular–season deadline or next summer.” 

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The source added that, “Management knows and has constantly discussed this scenario, understanding there is no way for the team to maintain, or improve, its defense without such a move. That includes re-signing Morgan Rielly, or finding a replacement. After the coming season, it’s over for the Big 4 up front.”

But Is Matthews the Player to Trade?

Berger’s source went on to say, “Don’t be shocked if it’s Auston. If he provides any indication he’ll look elsewhere after his contract, the Leafs may not have a choice. That’s the gamble they took by granting him free agency at 27. It doesn’t mean the Leafs will be able to trade Auston. He carries a big ticket and another team will encounter the same contract deadline. Plus, there’s no playoff resume yet. But, I sense he’s the guy management could target.”

There Are a Few Reasons to Take This Quote as Legitimate

First, obviously we don’t know who the person who “recently worked for Brendan Shanahan” is or even how close they are to the heartbeat of the organization. The person might not have had access to that information.

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However, given the general tight nature of the lips that surround Maple Leafs’ management – for example about Matthews recent wrist surgery, it’s no surprise that the person wouldn’t want to be identified. 

Second, it would also make sense that the Maple Leafs would at least be considering trading Matthews as one of many financial options. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t.

Third, it’s logical on the face of it. This is the same information that THW readers offer to us almost every day in the Conversation Section at the bottom of our posts. Redundantly, they share that the team’s payroll structure simply can’t work and the team is hamstrung in its effort to produce a winner until that’s changed. That said, seldom is Matthews mentioned as THE solution.

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

However, is the quote both legitimate and accurate? We don’t know. However, what if it’s true? We believe it would be folly to believe that it couldn’t happen. 

There Is at Least One Error in the Post

We do see one error in the post; and, if there’s one, there could be more. That error is noted in this point; “T.J. Brodie, Justin Holl, and Wayne Simmonds have movement constraints, but Matthews does not.” 

That’s not actually correct. Matthews does have a No Move Clause. However, that clause doesn’t kick in until the last year of his contract. If the Maple Leafs wanted to move Matthews, they’d have to do so before that clause kicks in on July 1, 2023.

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In a previous post, we outlined that the Maple Leafs have a small window between the end of the 2022-2023 season and July 1st, 2023, when the 2023-2024 year of Matthews contract kicks in. During that time, they would need to find out if Matthews’ plan were to try free agency. If there were any indication it might be, the best recourse would be to trade him. 

We never thought about trading him sooner than that. Although the Maple Leafs can’t, by the terms of the CBA, officially negotiate a new contract prior to January 2023, there is nothing stopping general manager Kyle Dubas or Maple Leafs’ President Brendan Shanahan from asking Matthews what his intentions are at any time. It could be that he isn’t certain; however, if Matthews were interested in relocating, you’d think he’d wouldn’t hold the organization hostage by not sharing that information.

If Matthews Were to Hit Free Agency

If Matthews indicated that he planned on going the UFA route – and why wouldn’t he, he really owes little to the Maple Leafs. Free agency would likely make him the highest paid player in the NHL. As a result, it would seem more logical for the Maple Leafs to work out a trade with two years left on his contract rather than just one. The return would probably be much greater.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What kind of a return could the Maple Leafs expect to get if they dealt Matthews? The most sense would be to trade for a center who can score goals, someone Mitch Marner can feed the puck. For example, Mika Zibanejad from the New York Rangers might fit that deal. Zibanejad’s 65 goals puts him sixth in goal scoring in the NHL over the past two seasons. The Rangers could certainly afford to pay Matthews, and I am sure they like to find a way to fit Matthews under their salary cap. 

While we’re sure Zibanejad would likely get a significant raise when his present $5.35 million deal runs out at the end of this season, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the $15 million a season Matthews could get as a UFA in 2024. There are other options, as well. None of them are Matthews, but that’s both the point – and the problem.

In the end, moving Matthews means that the Maple Leafs would not have half of their cap space going to four forwards. And the move would certainly allow the team to greatly improve its defense. 

How Do the Maple Leafs Trade Matthews Without Getting Worse?

If it comes to trading Matthews, how do the Maple Leafs make a deal without making the team significantly worse? The answer to this question is they likely won’t. Players like Matthews simply don’t come around often. 

However, the Maple Leafs won’t want to take too big a step backwards. They’ll want to remain Stanley Cup contenders. John Tavares isn’t getting any younger, while Marner and Nylander will still be in their prime.  

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Tavares, Kapanen & Conacher

We do have to say that we never thought that, three years into Matthews’ present contract, we’d be discussing what we could get on a trade for him. But, as we noted, that’s both the point and the problem.

[Note: Again I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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