Count me out of the group that thinks the Auston Matthews contract just totally must be signed by July 1 or the sky will fall. This theory rests on the fact that his contract has a no-move clause that kicks in on that date, and that gives him leverage.
This theory is sensible if you're talking about an ordinary hockey player. We're not, it's dumb, and I have no patience for it. Auston Matthews can't have more leverage than he has just by virtue of who he is.
No one, not Kyle Dubas, not Brendan Shanahan, not Larry Tanenbaum, not the Rogers and Bell executives, not some potential replacement GM, not Brandon Pridham or any one of the eight to 10 people with brass plaques on their doors at Maple Leafs headquarters, wants Auston Matthews to move. This clause is just not that big of a deal.
There is no plausible threat of a trade to hold over his head. And for a player like Auston Matthews, the discussion over his contract is not one of trying to impose team will on a mere mortal. It's about a team and the one man they need more than anything else making a deal that is the best compromise between what he's really worth and what a team can afford to pay him in a salary cap league.
Because make no mistake, there is no one in the NHL more underpaid than the very top echelon of players.
I've heard it said that to prove his love for the fans of the Maple Leaf, Matthews should be happy with less than he makes now, and so anything over $12 million is bad, a bad deal, terrible, and proof of his venal nature. If you believe that, boy are you about to be disappointed.
For a player of Matthews' stature, the team needs to invite him in as more of a partner in their future success. There is no room for authoritarian strong man GM tactics. The Leafs are not painting their locker room red and indulging in flame motifs in the name of cost-cutting.
- Matthews signed for 5 by $11.6 million in 2019. The salary cap was only an estimate on the day he signed, but that deal became 14.3% of the 2019-2020 cap ceiling.
- McDavid signed for 8 by $12.5 million in 2017 for a deal that took effect in 2018. That ultimately became 15.7% of the cap ceiling in its first year.
- Nate MacKinnon signed for 8 by $12.6 million in 2022, a deal that takes effect next season. We don't know the cap ceiling next season yet, but it will be at least $83.5 million, and that's 15.1% of that minimum ceiling. Less if the cap goes up by more.
From this we can learn a few things. Matthews and his agent take a different view to contract structure. Rumours abound that he will be asking for (and getting) a short deal again this time around. Another thing is that signing contracts a year in advance is a lot easier to do during periods when the salary cap isn't rising much. You're trying to project into the future what a contract at around 15% of the cap will be, and doing that right now is especially difficult.
This cap situation has been discussed many times, but the short version is this:
- The players were overpaid during the start of the pandemic, incurring a debt to the escrow pool.
- The escrow debt is mostly, but not fully, paid off.
- The CBA mandates a salary cap ceiling increase of $1 million per year at most until that debt is paid.
- The CBA allows for the NHL and the NHLPA to negotiate a step-up increase in exactly the situation that has arisen this season to avoid a flat cap one year and a very large increase the next when the cap ceiling is set on real revenue again.
- That negotiation is going on now. and the salary cap for next season will not be finalized until just before the draft.
- The revenue in 2022-2023 is projected to be the highest it has ever been, and just by virtue of inflation, we can expect next season's revenue to rise to even greater heights.
When Matthews and the Leafs negotiate his contract, they will be attempting to get to a certain % of the salary cap that will exist in 2024-2025 under the new paradigm of revenue projection and also in a world with inflation that was unthinkable when McDavid signed his deal. Ideally, both sides would like to have a firm handle on that cap number. And that puts the likely timing of an extension closer to that July 1 date when the scary no-move takes effect.
Muddying the waters is the fact that Auston Matthews' agent is negotiating (he isn't really negotiating yet, he's not stupid) with a GM who might be gone tomorrow to spend a year coaching the U14 field hockey team of Barbados.
And, as many reporters wearing their pundit hat have said, if the Leafs are changing the GM, Matthews wants to know that he's still going to have a team he believes in the way he does the current Leafs. So the GM situation has to get solved first.
I've also heard the somewhat joking idea that Matthews will end up with an AAV of $12.7 million, to be the highest paid player by that measure. In a continuing flat cap world, I'd buy that. In an inflationary cap world, I do not. The NHL estimated cap ceiling for 2024-2025, per CapFriendly, is $87.5 million. Fifteen percent of that is just over $13 million. I think Matthews is going to come in with an ask of $15 million, the Leafs will counter with the McDavid, and the deal will land on something that starts with lucky 13. Let's say $13,434,340 as the AAV.
Because the cap is rising so fast, whatever deal Matthews signs will look less impressive very fast. The NHL prediction for 2025-2026 is $92 million, making a $13 million AAV only 14% of that cap ceiling – less than his first year on his current deal. This, much more than that no-move clause, is the confounding aspect to this deal. In a flat cap world, it might take a couple of weeks to sort out. Trying to hit an AAV the Leafs can live with and Matthews doesn't consider a pay cut is going to be harder now than it has been in some time.
The trouble with success on the level the NHL has experienced it coming out of the pandemic is that everyone wants their cut. And when it comes to one of the best players in the NHL, you don't say no. Anything less than $14 million is a win for the Leafs, something you won't hear anyone else say. Gasps and wringing hands over how they'll find room for the rest of the team will meet whatever deal gets signed, whenever it gets done.