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Matthews gets contract he deserves – but Leafs face massive cap challenge now

Matthews had a ton of leverage and is worth every penny of his five-year, $58.17-million extension. But now Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has to survive a salary-cap gauntlet with several key RFAs still unsigned for next season.

We all knew the day would come when Auston Matthews’ theoretical dollars became real ones, just like we knew it would happen for William Nylander and we know it will happen for Mitch Marner.

The Nylander extension, six years at a $6.96-million AAV, more or less landed at an expected number and term in December. It remained to be seen how Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas would manage that deal alongside John Tavares’ $11-million cap number and the extensions for 2019 RFAs Matthews, Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. Still, it all felt far away. We knew Matthews and Marner would get big dollar values. We also knew Dubas pledged on July 1, the day Tavares signed, and again after Nylander re-signed that all the team's stars would fit under the cap, that the Rubik's Cube could be solved.

But, hm. Now that Auston Matthews’ five-year extension has been announced, carrying an $11.634-million cap hit and an organizational-muscle-flexing 93 percent paid out in signing bonuses, it all feels so much more real, doesn’t it? Marner’s deal isn’t yet on the books, but we can start to envision what Toronto’s cap situation will look like going forward. And it’s remarkably complex.

Matthews was never going to get Connor McDavid money – he signed his max-term extension at a $12.5-million AAV weeks after winning the Hart and Art Ross Trophies – but we also knew Matthews’ cap number would exceed Jack Eichel's $10-million AAV. Matthews has a Calder Trophy – and his 76 even-strength goals since he entered the league rank second to Connor McDavid’s 84. Matthews has played 33 fewer games over that stretch. He ranks second only to McDavid in primary points per 60 minutes among the 613 skaters with at least 1,000 minutes played at 5-on-5 since 2016-17.

Matthews, then, clearly had leverage in this negotiation and only got more of it given what he’s accomplished in the half season since he became extension-eligible. The cap number is at least what he’s worth. It's 14.63 percent of the current cap and would comprise 14.02 percent of a projected $83-million cap. McDavid signed for 16.67 percent of Edmonton’s cap. Seems fair. The five-year term is arguably the most shocking element of Matthews deal. It gets him to unrestricted free agency three years earlier, another product of his leverage. It may have required a bigger number to land him for eight years, so a shorter contract helps Dubas manage his cap a little easier in the short term.

But, goodness, that doesn’t mean life will be easy for Dubas now. Seeing the monster Matthews AAV in the flesh makes the Marner negotiation, which won’t take place until the season’s over, much scarier. The Leafs currently have 14 NHL roster players signed for 2019-20 for $71,905,699. If the cap rises to $83 million, they’ll have $11,094,301 remaining – with the ability to nudge Nathan Horton’s $5.3 million back to LTIR after the start of the season, pushing the cap space to $16,394,301. Marner alone is doing enough this season to command a cap hit of $10 million or higher, while Kapanen and Johnsson are breaking out, too. The math doesn’t add up if we’re looking at each player in the context of a long-term extension.

Something will have to give here, won’t it? Matthews and Nylander got what they’re worth. Will Marner still be able to do so? Or, by virtue of signing after Matthews, will he consider a Nikita Kucherov-style bridge contract (three years in the $5-6-million range per year?) for the good of keeping the core together? Same goes for Kapanen and Johnsson. They look like near locks to sign bridge contracts now – unless included as part of some blockbuster trade Dubas pulls between now and the Feb. 25 deadline. Unlikely, but you never know. And if the Jake Muzzin acquisition didn’t already clinch 2018-19 as Jake Gardiner’s Toronto swan song, crunching the numbers post-Matthews extension certainly does.

Dubas has projected consistent confidence that he’ll fit everyone under Toronto’s cap in this era of championship contention. There’s no denying, however, that he has some immensely challenging arithmetic ahead of him. Finding a taker for Nikita Zaitsev’s five remaining years at a $4.5-millon AAV feels more important than ever now. But who bites on that?

We also should bookmark the summer of 2024. That’s when Matthews and Nylander become UFAs. So it would be wise to ensure whatever contract Marner signs doesn’t end the same season.



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