As we embark on the second half of the season, I find myself thinking back to the beginning of the year. Nothing matters until the playoffs, how will the goaltending tandem hold up, and will Auston Matthews score 70 this year?

And then there was quite a bit of talk about the next contract for Auston Matthews. Even though it can’t be discussed until this summer. Does he command a max AAV contract? What about term? What would those numbers even look like?

Who can we use as comparable? His goal scoring rate seems pedestrian this year. Does this affect his bargaining power? Is he already in decline? Should the Leafs just let him walk? Obviously not.

Season to Date

Now that we’ve passed the halfway point, we have a much better idea about who this team is, and what type of season Auston Matthews is going to have. About those 70 goals. Probably not.

Don’t worry, I was right there wanting to believe.

At this juncture however, Matthews has a paltry 20 goals & 27 assists for 47 points through 41 games. It honestly doesn’t feel like he has really hit his stride this year. His shooting percentage is still awful to his career. He’s currently shooting 9.48% at even strength, compared to his career worst of 13.14%, his third campaign back in 2018-19.

Still, he’s 21st in the League in P/60 at 5-on-5; I’d say anywhere in the top-30 any given year is perfectly acceptable.

I don’t see him having any trouble negotiating, Auston Matthews is still dominant.

The Next Contract - Term

The current contract has one more year after this, but as you all know Auston is eligible to sign an extension on July 1st, 2023. One year after that he will be a UFA if no contract is signed. I think he stays and I think this gets done this coming summer. For the sake of this article, and my sanity, that is what I’m going to assume.

How many years though? Well, much like his first extension, I believe it will be shorter than expected. He will be 27 years old when his new contract kicks in so I don’t think there is much time to waste, but I think he takes a shorter term to help maximize his overall earnings.

The salary cap has not gone up the way anyone would have guessed when #34 last signed a deal. Last summer, the cap sounded like it might stay stagnated at least until another contract could be signed. Then, towards the end of training camp, other numbers started coming out.

NHL preparing teams for sharp salary cap increase over next three seasons

And all of a sudden the cap was on the move. With rather specific guidance being given. With an idea of where the cap is going, and how soon. It makes it simpler to plan ahead when we have signs of normal growth returning year over year.

Now a little further into this lovely 2022-23 campaign, the escrow debt that has been keeping the cap down since Spring of 2020 may finally be eliminated at the conclusion of this season.

Gary Bettman was hosting the BOG down at Disney in December and stated we may have a jump as high as $4.5 million next year IF the escrow debt can be paid off. For the sake of today, I’ll stick with the pre-season numbers and assume $1 million dollar increase, but as we get closer to the off-season, we will have greater clarity.

The NHL seems to be running in a conservative fashion as these estimates seem to have been toppled each year since we had playoffs in a bubble. The cap could conceivably skyrocket once our escrow conversation can be retired, quickly rendering the pre-season estimates useless. We just don’t know yet.

This is why I say a short term deal, three years specifically. I think Matthews turns down the safe term at least once more in the name of maximizing his earnings. It gets him through the 2026-27 season and allows for the upper limit to gain some momentum.

Who knows, the cap may rise an extra million any given year above expectation if the Leafs win the Cup.

The Next Contract - Dollars

When Auston Matthews’ new deal kicks in, the 2024-25 season, the cap is expected to be near $88 million, up from an expected $83.5 million. One year later, $92 million is expected for 2025-26. Let’s start here.

We have three years where we have estimates on the cap. Estimates that GMs are planning around. There isn’t a good reason I see to expect these marks won’t be hit.

How high will it go the following season? Maybe another $4 million raise. Maybe more. At least having the road map is a lot more than teams and players usually have. It will give them a starting point when looking at percentage of cap.

With his five year deal, Auston’s AAV was 14.64% of the salary cap at that time. If we assume that number stays the same, the dollar amount on his contract AAV would be $12.22 million based on an $83.5 million cap limit. However, if he waits until the following summer, the expected cap of $88 million could be utilized after July 1st. That would bring the AAV up to $12.88 million

But what about recent precedent? Who can we compare to Matthews? Well, I’m not saying it’s a great fit, but Nathan MacKinnon is as good as we’re going to get.

His nine figure deal, kicking in next season, contains the league’s highest AAV at $12.6 million and is listed at 15.27% of the cap. McDavid holds the high water mark at 16.67% for those who were curious about his portion of the cap.

If we use MacKinnon’s cap rate, at $83.5 million Matthews would be up to $12.75 million on an AAV. Use the following season’s $88 million and it climbs to $13.44 million. I think it is fair to expect Matthews to be right at that rate.

Does the shorter term bring that number down? Absolutely not. MacKinnon’s deal starts when he is 28. The performance certainty through the life of the contract just isn’t the same as a hypothetical three year deal for Matthews. He would be 29 in the final year of the deal. In my opinion it works in his favor. Let us not forget he has the ultimate UFA bargaining chip. It will be higher.

At $14 million AAV, 15.91% of the $88 million salary cap, Matthews would earn $195,000 more than McDavid over the eight years coming off their starter contracts. That is the number.

I can’t say I’d be surprised to see it, and I won’t be surprised come summer. Three years at $14 million AAV. Ridiculous?

Wrapped Up in a Bow

Joe Thornton signed the highest AAV of his career the day he turned 38. That was after four consecutive three year deals. Not bad. The first of those three contract, fresh of the implementation of the salary cap in the summer of 2005, was 17.09% of the cap. I bring up Jumbo because I like him, and want to show an alternative to eight year deals for star players. He’s also someone who would be in a position to lend an ear or advice to Matthews as he decides what to do next.

The risk is health when it comes to a short term deal. If you have a career ending injury, you won’t be signing more contracts. That said, Auston Matthews will have earned over $60 million at that point. Modern medicine gets people back where they need to be faster than ever. He has plenty of safety net.

What would $14 million be as a percent of $83.5 million salary cap? 16.77%. While I don’t think Toronto management likes the idea of that number, agent Judd Moldaver has an easy job:

This is what we want. We can do it now with a higher percentage or we can do it next summer and hope for the best.

After that, Matthews is still 29 years old and back to being a UFA. Teams will still be lining up to offer him 7 x $15+ million then.

If the cap breaks $100 million by then, his AAV could theoretically be maxed at a $20 million AAV. He just needs to buy a few years to get there.

I may be off my rocker a bit here, but this is how I see things shaking loose. There is still a good chance that the cap shoots up more than the pre-season numbers I used, but we’ll just have to wait and see. Just like with this contract discussion.