The reality is that when Auston Matthews’ entry-level contract expired after this season, he could have walked into GM Kyle Dubas’ office and demanded an eight-year deal worth $15.9 million per season. Whether or not he would have received it is another thing, but he would have been fully within his rights to ask for the maximum term with an annual salary of 20 percent of the salary cap. And that would have put his team in one heck of a bind.
He obviously did not do that, instead agreeing to a five-year extension that will average out to just over $11.6 million per season. For a kid who eschewed both major junior hockey and the U.S. national team development program to play his draft year in Switzerland, a kid who was born in California and raised in Arizona and had no emotional attachment to Toronto, a kid who followed agent Judd Moldaver when the latter left the high profile CAA Agency last year, there was some thought that perhaps Matthews would be the one to finally shed the hockey player mentality and put his own financial interests ahead of those of his team, the way Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid did before him.
“Auston Matthews could have driven whatever deal Auston Matthews wanted to drive,” one agent said. “The Leafs had no choice if they believe Auston Matthews is their core piece other than to give him what he wanted for the term he wanted. He was perfectly positioned for it. The Maple Leafs have made decisions that have impacted Auston Matthews getting the most money possible. That shouldn’t impact Auston Matthews.”
So that made it a team-friendly contract. Until, of course, you realize that he stands to become an unrestricted free agent two months before his 27th birthday, when he could be at the height of his career. So that makes it a great deal for the player. With a U.S. television deal coming up in two years, gambling revenues on the way and another expansion team that will likely create more money in the system than ever, this yearly stipend is going to look like a bargain if revenue records continue to be smashed. Advantage: team. But then again, Matthews will have the second-highest cap hit in the NHL and will tie John Tavares for the top salary in the NHL next season, so the player made out like a bandit. He’s getting a lot of money to cover the Group II years of this contract.
To be sure, there are varying opinions on which party made out better on this deal. But now that the biggest dog has signed, how will it affect other young NHL stars coming out of their entry-level deals this summer, a group that is without a doubt the best in league history? When you consider the likes of teammate Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk, Sebastian Aho, Brock Boeser and Kyle Connor, it’s a formidable group. For the past couple of seasons, conventional thinking was that you got your young stars through their entry-level deals and got them under contract for eight years after that. But the Matthews signing has changed that dynamic. There are undoubtedly players who have taken note of Matthews’ move and will reconsider their position. To be 26 or 27 years old with the possibility of signing an eight-year deal with the team of you choice is a powerful enticement.
“For sure it changes the landscape,” another agent said. “One good thing about this contract is the term. If this doesn’t change for (other entry-level players), then they’re not opening up their minds to what the realm of the possibilities are. At the end of the day, no player has to sign a contract he doesn’t have to sign.”
The cautionary tale here is McDavid, who signed his eight-year extension a year early, which basically tied him to the Edmonton Oilers for the next nine years. He took less money that he could have, placing his faith in the Oilers that they would spend that money wisely. They did not and now he’s in for seven years on a team that is not close to being a contender at a wage that is woefully low in relation to his abilities and his status as the undisputed best player in the world.
“Matthews will be 26 years old at the end of this contract, which is better than being 30,” another agent said. “And if he wants to leave, he has more control than if he signed an eight-year deal.”
Really, the only risk Matthews is enduring at this point is the unlikely event of a career-ending injury. Another agent pointed out though, that if Matthews had signed an eight-year extension now, he would be 29 (going on 30) when it expired. He could conceivably sign another eight-year deal after that. But as it stands now, if he signs an eight-year deal after this one, he’ll be 34 (going on 35) when it expires. “Maybe he doesn’t get the other three years to make up for the eight-plus-eight contract.”
The others will be watching closely. “The key thing is what does Marner do?” an agent said. “Then what can Point, Tkachuk, Rantanen say their worth is compared to Marner? If Marner is insistent that he be paid like Matthews or close to it, you’re going to have a lot of arguing from those players because they’re very close to Marner.”