Before Auston Matthews signed a four-year, $53-million extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, the team was looking at a murky future.
Having Matthews on the books through 2027-28 is no guarantee of success, whether that means deep playoff runs or the end of the team's infamous Stanley Cup drought. It does mean that this team is not only trying to remain a championship contender for most of the decade, but it has a strong centerpiece to build around.
On Wednesday morning, the Maple Leafs had just three players under contract past 2024-25: Morgan Rielly, David Kämpf, Calle Järnkrok and Ryan Reaves. While Rielly is a solid top-pair defender, that's a tough group to hang your hopes on.
It's likely the Maple Leafs would have retained some of their forward core deeper into the future, as Mitch Marner and John Tavares are locals — who by all accounts want to remain with the team — and William Nylander seems to want to stay in Toronto, too.
If you mapped out all of the scenarios that could happen between now and the end of the 2024-25 season, very few of them would've had the Maple Leafs' top forwards all walking and Toronto rebuilding around a fat pile of cap space. It was technically on the table, though, and now it isn't.
Because the Maple Leafs' identity in recent years revolved around their best four forwards and those players — outside of Tavares — were all relatively young, it was always easy to envision the team as a perpetual contender.
With all four approaching free agency, that wasn't the case.
I feel fortunate to continue this journey as a Maple Leaf in front of the best fans in hockey! I will do everything I can to help get us to the top of the mountain. GLG! #LeafsForever
— Auston Matthews (@AM34) August 23, 2023
Also, the simple fact is that not one of Marner, Tavares or Nylander provides the Maple Leafs with the same competitive floor Matthews does. Now the Maple Leafs have one of the best 10 players in the NHL as their top-line center for four years beyond next season — a guy who is simultaneously one of the NHL's best scorers and a solid defensive presence.
There are teams that Marner would be the best player on, but we don't have proof of concept for the playmaking winger leading a team. Tavares is ill-equipped to handle the matchups Matthews takes on a nightly basis. He could be a nominal top center, but there isn't a Stanley Cup contender that would be happy with him in that role. Nylander is an excellent offensive player, but he's not in the same conversation as Matthews.
None of those players are as flawed as some of their loudest critics think they are, and Matthews is far from perfect. The difference is that Matthews plus uncertainty is something you can work with. Some combination of the other guys with the absence of one of the NHL's premier two-way pivots on the top line is a more precarious situation.
There are those who will come down against this deal because Matthews is taking the highest AAV in NHL history ($13.25 million) and he isn't the best player in the league. That's a fair assessment, but he utilized the leverage he had available to him and was willing to bet on himself by shunning the kind of maximum-length extension most NHL superstars take.
It's possible the sheer weight of this contract will seem onerous at times, but when Matthews signed his previous deal he made 14.3% of the salary cap in his first year, and that number never fell below 13.9% due to the flat cap.
This time around, he's projected to make 15.1% of the cap in the first year of his extension, with that number dropping to 14.4% in his second year. For much of this deal he could effectively be making less than he did on his previous contract from the Maple Leafs' perspective.
The extension is undoubtedly rich. Toronto would've hoped to sign a longer deal, and Matthews has yet to deliver playoff glory, but this is a good development for the Maple Leafs. By inking their franchise player, the Leafs bought a clear sense of direction, another sizeable window, and the kind of cost certainty that should help them map out their future.