The Toronto Maple Leafs won their first game of the 2018-19 season because they have all-world talents such as Auston Matthews in their lineup. The Toronto Maple Leafs will win a lot of games this season because they have all-world talents such as Auston Matthews in their lineup.
But to listen to team president Brendan Shanahan, or at least read between the lines of what he’s saying, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander are going to have to take hometown discounts if they want to keep the band together on a long-term basis. Speaking to the media hours before his team skated to a 3-2 overtime victory on the strength of two goals by Matthews, Shanahan was talking about his team in general and the Nylander contract imbroglio in particular.
“We need players who want to be Maple Leafs,” Shanahan said when discussing his team in generalities. “This may not be for everyone.”
It’s very, very important to note that this is not Shanahan’s first rodeo. He played the game for more than two decades and crossed swords with management on a couple of occasions. In 1991, he signed an offer sheet as an restricted free agent that cost the St. Louis Blues Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens. Shanahan may not have been speaking directly to Matthews, Marner and Nylander, but the message in his nuance was clear. You did not have to dig very deep beyond Shanahan’s words to see there was a distinct message being delivered.
Then Matthews went out and showed why the longer the Maple Leafs wait to sign him to a contract extension, the more they could be putting themselves in peril. Bolstered with more power play time – only Tavares logged more than the 3:21 Matthews played – the Maple Leafs’ budding superstar showed in one game why he may very well have a Rocket Richard Trophy on his mantle after this season and why the Leafs can afford to approach games against lesser opponents with less than a full commitment and still win them. He did not seem too worried by Shanahan’s words.
“That’s why we’ve got agents, right?” Matthews said. “Let them figure it out, talk to management. We’ll stay out of it and just play hockey.”
It’s a good attitude to have and one that both Matthews and Marner will almost certainly continue to have as the season progresses. At this point, there isn’t much motivation for them to negotiate unless the team is willing to hit their price point. But with only so much cap space to go around, Shanahan was fairly clear that the others will have to follow the lead set by Tavares, who actually could have signed for more money with the San Jose Sharks.
“I think what I’m saying is that on any team, especially with the challenges we face today, you have to figure out what’s most important to you,” Shanahan said. “And at the end of the day, we see a great example with a John Tavares. We were able to attract a player like that who could have made more money elsewhere, who is still doing very, very well financially. But it wasn’t his responsibility to set a new bar or please other people with other interests. He’s a hockey player. He wanted to come here and win hockey games. He wanted to be treated fairly and, yes, that is what we hope for and expect from our players moving forward. It’s not for everyone, but the ones who will play here, that is what we want from them and I think that’s what we want from each other.”
Shanahan even harkened on his experience with the Red Wings, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and ’98 prior to the salary cap era and with the benefit of an owner who was one of the most free-spending in the league. It certainly was not an apples-to-apples comparison, but Shanahan was trying to relay a sentiment. In the six seasons after those Cup victories leading up to the 2004-05 lockout, the Red Wings had the highest payroll in the NHL in three of them. In the other three, they were second only to the New York Rangers.
“I can speak from my personal experience that when I get together with some of my old mates from the Cup years in Detroit, we talk about winning together and growing together and that’s what we remember looking back,” Shanahan said. “At the end of the day, we all found a way we could fit with each other so we could keep adding to the group and that is obviously what we’re asking some of our young leaders to do. There’s a lot of other voices and understandably so. Like I said, it’s not for everyone. What I hope they can look back on 20 years or 30 years down the road, what will be most important to them, is whether or not they maxed out as an individual and as a team and that they have championships to look back on.”
This is just starting to get interesting.