The thing about building an elite team—something the Leafs have done for the very first time in the salary-cap era—is that, very quickly, you have to figure out how to pay for it. It gets top-heavy, and you either have to get creative, or see it all fall apart. The Maple Leafs already agreed to pay John Tavares a lot for a long time, and will soon agree to pay Mitch Marner a lot for a long time, and so, right up until he signed on the dotted line today, they had to figure out what exactly to do about Auston Matthews.
The Leafs have announced that Matthews, their ridiculously talented 21-year-old center, has agreed to terms on a five-year, $58.17 million contract extension. It’ll run through 2023–24 and carry an AAV (and cap hit) of $11.634 million. This is big money, though not quite Connor McDavid money, and it’s also not close to the eight-year maximum length allowed under the CBA. What gives?
Basically, the needle that both sides had to thread here was salary vs. length. Matthews wanted more money, of course, while the Leafs wanted more years locked down for a true superstar in his prime. This compromise of a deal sees Matthews accepting a smaller AAV than he might have, in exchange for a shorter deal, because the real money he’s going to make in his career will come when he hits free agency three years earlier than he might have.
Between now and the summer of 2024, when a 26-year-old Matthews becomes a free agent, some important things are going to happen. In 2020 (if either side opts out this fall; it’ll be in 2022 if not), a new CBA will be signed. In 2021, a new U.S. TV deal will kick in, and just about everyone’s expecting it to be for a significantly larger amount of money than the current one. Somewhere along the way, money from the legalization of sports betting is going to enter the picture. All together those mean that the salary cap in 2024 should be much, much higher, and top-end superstar deals commensurately richer. Insert into that situation a player like Matthews, who’ll still have more of his best years ahead of him than a typical star entering his first unrestricted free agency, and: he’s going to get paid.
This is, on the whole, a very good deal for Matthews, and it was probably the only option the Leafs had to sign him and still have the cap space to pay Marner and surround their stars with depth talent. That angle is also a win for Matthews, mind you— everyone wants better teammates. “There’s no secret there’s a cap,” Matthews said last weekend. “[We’re] trying to find something that works for both sides and obviously helps us out with that whole situation.”
And hey, if the tradeoff of money for years sounds familiar, remember that both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews signed five-year extensions coming off their entry-level deals. Toronto could do a lot worse than Chicago did in juggling its big contracts and keeping the band together for as long as possible, though, of course, the piper gets paid eventually.
The faces of this team are being set in stone. Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri are signed through 2022. Matthews is now here through 2024, and Marner will probably be the same. William Nylander and Nikita Zaitsev are also signed through 2024. Tavares through 2025. It will be impossible to afford to re-sign all of these players after that, nor might the Leafs even necessarily want to. So while this is a hell of a lot of talent to have locked down, that lockdown isn’t infinite. The Maple Leafs’ window is open; now we know when it closes.