Auston Matthews didn’t trigger any mass hysteria with his comments, but it’s probably safe to say the Toronto Maple Leafs and Matthews’ representatives would have preferred he hadn’t told the world that negotiations between his camp and the team have begun.
“They’ve obviously started,” Matthews told reporters Thursday night at a charity event in Toronto. “It’s not really something I’m not too in tune with. I kind of let my agent and management handle that. They preach patience – Kyle (Leafs GM Dubas), my agent, my team and everything. When it gets done, it gets done, but I don’t think that anyone is in too big a rush.”
It is true that negotiations have begun with Matthews and Mitch Marner for contract extensions, but in both cases it hasn’t gone too far beyond generalities. Matthews is right about there being no sense of urgency here, certainly from the player’s side of things. Coming off a season in which he missed 20 games with injuries and a playoff performance that could be described as underwhelming at best, Matthews might not be too interested in signing before he has an opportunity to prove what he can do over a full and healthy season.
It actually looks like the Matthews negotiation should be a fairly simple one, but these things always do from the outside. When you look at the production, Matthews should fall somewhere north of the $10 million allotted to Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and somewhere below the $12.5 million Connor McDavid will begin pulling down this coming season. That theoretically would put Matthews somewhere in the middle, $11.25 million on an eight-year deal with lots of up-front bonus money and all kinds of lockout protection. That would also put him $250,000 a year ahead of his new teammate John Tavares. Yup, that sounds about right.
Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory Matthews shouldn’t have to pay for McDavid’s hockey-player-like decision to take far less than his worth. When McDavid was negotiating his extension last summer, he was in a position to demand $15 million a year and chose not to so that the Oilers could use the extra cap space to fit good players around him. Let’s say Matthews breaks out with a monster year in 2018-19 and halfway through the season shows every indication he’s going to be a 100-point producer. That could make things very interesting. In reality, Matthews is closer to McDavid’s worth than he is to Eichel’s, so perhaps Matthews comes in somewhere in the $11.5-million to $11.75-million range.
On the docket after that is Marner, who provides another very interesting, and possibly more vexing, case. Even more so than Matthews, the best strategy for Marner might be to hold off on signing an extension, particularly if he’s going to play regularly with Tavares. It’s a virtual certainty that Marner will wait to see what Matthews ends up getting.
Would the Leafs consider signing Matthews and Marner to identical deals the way the Chicago Blackhawks did with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane? Likely not, but there is no indication Marner will be a shrinking violet when it comes time to negotiate his deal, nor should he be. It was interesting to hear Marner talk Thursday night about how he wants to be taken more seriously, particularly by his teammates. Despite being a consistent point producer and exceeding every challenge that has faced him, Marner has had to take a backseat for the past five years or so, first to McDavid in junior hockey and now to Matthews in the NHL. Marner’s also had to earn his place in the NHL. At one point last season, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had Marner on the fourth line, and Babcock has steadfastly refused to play him regularly with Matthews.
Marner will likely have to step behind Matthews when it comes to salary. Is the comparable for Marner a player such as Leon Draisaitl, who is actually a bit of an outlier at $8.5 million? The Leafs could be quick to point out the St. Louis Blues are paying Vladimir Tarasenko $7.5 million and the Boston Bruins are in for just $6.7 million a season on David Pastrnak. That likely won’t cut it with Marner’s camp.
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has already gone on the record as saying that he will get all three of Matthews, Marner and Nylander signed to long-term deals and they will all be staying in Toronto. Well, as Matthews pointed out Wednesday night, that work has already begun.