Auston Matthews, who didn’t score a goal against the Florida Panthers in the playoffs, will soon be the highest-paid player in the history of the National Hockey League.
That won’t happen for another season. But the pressure that has always surrounded Matthews, the pressure he has dealt with rather comfortably in his seven seasons with the Maple Leafs, will intensify come April — and every April after that for the duration of his deal.
This is just a beginning in a way for Matthews and the Leafs. We know the prime of his career will be played in Toronto. That much is certain now with his new four-year, $53-million extension with the Leafs, nicely equipped with the perfunctory no-movement clause.
Now it’s up to Matthews to make it count in a way that Hart Trophies, Rocket Richard trinkets and the individual hardware that he has earned matter less than victories in the post-season. The deal took almost 11 weeks to reach fruition. The negotiation was challenging, as many are.
The largest matter to settle was term. Matthews wanted less of it. The Leafs wanted more. They settled at four years — Matthews apparently wanted three, and the Leafs wanted to push to five or six years. The actual salary number per season — $13.25 million — is less than many had figured heading into the off-season. Matthews gets more than Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon, players who have accomplished more than him, but that’s always the way it works with the best players in the best leagues.
The last guy to sign sets the bar. The next guy, when it comes, will eclipse that.
In the big picture, Matthews kept his word and the Leafs kept theirs throughout the negotiation that went on between agent Judd Moldaver and new general manager Brad Treliving. Matthews said at the conclusion of last season that he wanted to stay in Toronto and now he will be a Leaf for the next five seasons. That means, barring unknown circumstances of any kind, he will play his first 12 seasons as a pro hockey player with the Leafs — that’s twice as long as Doug Gilmour played in Toronto, a half-season shorter than Darryl Sittler played here, and one season fewer than Mats Sundin’s term.
All three of the great centres who came before Matthews had playoff runs of some significance with the Leafs. Dave Keon came before them and was part of four Stanley Cup champions in the 1960s. Matthews, as a Leaf, is the winner of one playoff round in seven seasons.
That will never be good enough no matter how much he earns or how many goals he scores in regular-season games he plays.
The advantage of getting the deal done now is that training camp doesn’t begin next month with all kinds of questions surrounding the Leafs’ best player. The questions will be about hockey now. They won’t be about money. They won’t be about term. The extension is for four years and $53 million. By hockey standards, that’s a huge amount of money. By the standards of the rest of professional sports in North America, it’s pocket change.
Steph Curry will make Matthews’ four-year money in one season in Golden State. Lamar Jackson will be paid more than $50 million to play quarterback this season in Baltimore. The next Shohei Ohtani contract in Major League Baseball should trump just about everybody in the Big Four, dollar-wise.
But in terms of hockey and the Leafs, this isn’t business as usual. It’s just smart business, though. Treliving had no interest in going extra-long term with Matthews. He’ll tell you — as he’s told me in the past — he hates eight-year deals. Matthews turns 26 next month. An eight-year deal would have taken a player who has been subject to injury to the age of 35. The Leafs like the idea of 12 years of Matthews in Toronto — and who knows how many after that.
Instead, Matthews will be a Leaf until the age of 30. Steve Yzerman won his first Stanley Cup in Detroit at the age of 31. Treliving loves the fact that Matthews can score goals — pretty much everybody does — but he thinks his game has reached another level. In fact, don’t be surprised if Matthews joins Mitch Marner on the penalty-kill for the coming season.
Maple Leafs’ Tavares, Giordano among NHLers playing in Hockey Night in Brampton for charity
Leafs’ Nylander on remaining in Toronto: ‘No other place I want to play’
Maple Leafs sign Auston Matthews to four-year extension
Matthews wants to do it. Treliving welcomes the idea. Now it will be up to coach Sheldon Keefe — whose own contract has yet to be settled by the club beyond this coming season — to agree with his GM and best player.
While the Matthews deal is done and there is no need to worry about his contract for five more years, there is always reason to worry about the team. Where exactly are the Leafs? Where are they going? How will they get there? Matthews actually took less money than he probably could have pushed for with the hopes the team will get better as the salary cap grows in the coming seasons.
The deal that isn’t done — or even close to being done — is the William Nylander contract. There were certain particulars with the Matthews deal that don’t apply to Nylander. Matthews isn’t just the Leafs’ best scorer, he’s their best player. Some on the inside think he’s their most complete player and best defensive player. Nylander produces but doesn’t have the overall game that either Matthews or Marner have.
During the season. During the season the goal is making the playoffs. Come April and May, the picture grows larger, the demands greater. MacKinnon has a Stanley Cup. McDavid has record-breaking scoring numbers for this generation and at least one trip to the conference final. Matthews wants to be part of that group — along with Leon Draisaitl — as the most important players in the most important games.
The ticking of the clock starts now. For five years of Matthews and five years of hope.