TORONTO, August 25, 2023 – Earlier this week, the hockey world witnessed a momentous event as Auston Matthews, the star player of the Toronto Maple Leafs, inked a groundbreaking contract extension. Valued at $53 million over a span of four years, with an average annual worth of $13.25 million, this agreement catapulted Matthews into the annals of NHL history as the highest-paid player to date.
“I feel fortunate to continue this journey as a Maple Leaf in front of the best fans in hockey,” Matthews posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. “I will do everything I can to help get us to the top of the mountain.”
Matthews, 25, recorded 85 points, (22nd overall with 40 goals, 45 assists) in 74 games with the Maple Leafs during the 2022-23 regular season and added 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 11 games during the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Scottsdale, Arizona native has recorded 542 points (299 goals, 243 assists) through 481 career regular season games while collecting 44 points (22 goals, 22 assists) through 50 career playoff games.
Among all-time franchise leaders, Matthews is currently tied for fifth in goals (299) and tied for second in overtime goals (nine). He is also fifth overall in power play goals (76), fourth in game-winning goals (53), and 11th in points (542).
Matthews won the Hart Memorial Trophy following the 2021-22 season where he led the NHL in goals (60) and set the Maple Leafs’ single-season franchise record. Matthews also won the 2022 Ted Lindsay Award, becoming the first Maple Leaf in franchise history to win the award. He won the Rocket Richard Memorial Trophy in consecutive seasons (2020-21 and 2021-22) and captured the 2016 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. Matthews has represented Toronto at the NHL All-Star Game on four occasions during his career (2017, 2018, 2019, 2022) and has been named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team and Second All-Star Team on one occasion each (2022 and 2021, respectively).
Is Matthews A Top Ten Player?
However, amidst the buzz, it’s crucial to take a collective breath and acknowledge that while Auston Matthews undoubtedly stands as a perennial all-star, he’s not Tom Brady. The context of his earning is also intertwined with the Leafs’ status as a hub within the hockey world. On a different team, he might command a nine to ten million dollar contract, since come playoff time, his impact can sometimes become marginal. In a league with stars like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and other luminaries like Nathan MacKinnon, contracts breaking the $14 million barrier might become the norm sooner than later. Furthermore, the question of whether Matthews ranks among the top ten players, let alone the best in the hockey universe, is a topic of discussion.
A Five Year Window
Yet, what weighs on the minds of Leafs fans is Matthews’ apparent disconnection from an ardent desire to secure a Cup victory in Toronto. A strategic move to secure victory now would have involved Matthews signing a five-year contract at $12 million annually, creating financial room for a top-notch goalie, a defensive enforcer, and even accommodating Marner and Nylander, should the trade winds remain quiet. An interesting sidelight here is why Matthews doesn’t bear the Captain’s insignia. The conjecture suggests he lacks the qualities of a captain, whereas John Tavares, though slowing down, continues to offer his unwavering commitment during every shift.
Yet, beneath the financial saga lies an intriguing narrative. The extension opens a five-year window for the Maple Leafs to clinch the elusive Stanley Cup before Matthews potentially becomes a free agent, enabling him to chart his course to another team. The challenge seems significant within the timeframe, but the Leafs boast a sturdy foundation, rendering the pursuit of victory feasible—especially considering the anticipated increase of the salary cap to $90 million in the near future, barring unforeseen cosmic events or pandemics.
Over the ensuing five years, it’s a near-certainty that Matthews will etch his name in the record books, breaking goal-scoring records and potentially accruing more MVP and Rocket Richard trophies. However he can’t do it alone and that’s where the problem begins.
The Core Four
While Matthews secures his extension, another narrative unfolds. Mitch Marner’s looming unrestricted free agency in a few years, coupled with William Nylander’s ongoing contract negotiations, juxtaposes the Leafs against a formidable dilemma. Concurrently, John Tavares has become a point a game player and almost half his points are scored on the power play. The team faces a monumental crossroads, a puzzle to solve. Although Nylander earlier this week did reveal to the hockey world, “There’s no other place I want to play, but I still have one more year left. I don’t understand why there is such a big rush to do something now.”
Rocky, Mario, Gretzky, Messier and The Canada Cup
Matthews’ trajectory evokes memories of Mario Lemieux before the 1987 Canada Cup, where Lemieux’s stardom was unquestioned but his ability to win appeared uncertain. A transformation occurred after sharing ice with Messier and Gretzky during that tournament—two Stanley Cups later, he emerged as a contender for the greatest ever. This shift in perspective highlighted the importance of substance over style, disproving the notion that flashy moves and 200-point seasons are the sole markers of greatness. Speaking to the website BarDown.com, Lemieux said, “I was 21, just to have a chance to play with Gretz and Messier and Coffey and Ray Bourque, and really have a chance to practice with them,” Lemieux said. “I think training camp was like three weeks long, I really learned a lot by watching these guys and seeing how hard they worked in practice, the dedication they had for the sport.
“I learned so much and I was able to take that back to Pittsburgh and eventually win two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, because of learning from those guys,’’ said Lemieux.
Goaltending & Defence
The goaltending landscape is equally intricate. Samonov’s promise, as demonstrated by a playoff series victory over Tampa, is undeniable. However, his experience isn’t significantly superior to his backup’s. To grasp the coveted Stanley Cup, the Leafs require a goaltender of Carter Hart or Thatcher Demko’s caliber—a presence reminiscent of iconic figures like Grant Fuhr, Carey Price, or Patrick Roy.
Moreover, the Leafs yearn for defensemen who embody resolute defense and physical prowess. An archetype akin to Alex Pietrangelo, a champion, fits the bill. The team’s need for players reminiscent of Scott Stevens or a young Chara amplifies.
Bye Bye Willie?
Alas, these aspirations entail a cost—namely, William Nylander’s possible departure. Despite the pleasure of witnessing his graceful maneuvres within the offensive zone, the time may have arrived for Nylander to explore new horizons, thereby furnishing Toronto the financial leeway to welcome players capable of rekindling the Cup’s presence in Canada, and more prominently, in Toronto.
by Myles Shane