What factors might shape Auston Matthews' next contract?
What will Auston Matthews next contract look like? It could surprise us. Photo by Nathan Denette/CP

TORONTO – Rewind the clock three years and what you felt in those early days of Maple Leafs training camp was relief.

Relief because the organization managed to get Mitch Marner’s signature on a contract without a protracted and messy standoff. But relief, too, because they’d finally brought an end to a multi-year cycle of questions and speculation about the futures of the players most responsible for dragging the Leafs out of the abyss.

That quiet period is now over.

Early as it may seem and be, the subject of what’s next for Auston Matthews is bound to be chewed on plenty throughout this coming season. In fact the reigning Hart Trophy winner will almost certainly be asked to address it publicly during an appearance at the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour in Las Vegas on Thursday and again next week when Leafs training camp formally opens.

There’s not really too much he can say.

There’s even less he or the Leafs can do since the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement doesn’t permit them to reach terms on an extension before July 1, 2023.

No matter.

With that critical moment now looming on the critical dates calendar for the upcoming campaign, it’s guaranteed to be discussed. And dissected. And debated. And … well let’s just see how well this Matt Murray/Ilya Samsonov goaltending tandem fares, shall we?

It’s a reminder about what makes Toronto such a unique place to carve out your NHL career.

There was nothing even remotely resembling a distraction when Johnny Gaudreau played out his contract in Calgary last season and ultimately left the team at the altar to sign in Columbus. And there isn’t much focus currently being paid to the fact that Nathan MacKinnon and David Pastrnak are among those who could potentially join the 2023 UFA class because they haven’t signed new deals in Colorado and Boston, respectively.

Matthews is eligible for the Class of 2024, although his longer-term future with the Leafs will almost certainly be clarified long before then.

An extension in Toronto is the most likely outcome.

Even if Matthews were to experience some regression in the next 10 months, he’d still likely remain the game’s most dangerous scorer by a decent margin. And players at his level entering an age-25 season aren’t typically prone to taking a significant step back.

What lies ahead here isn’t really a negotiation, at least not in a traditional sense. That was apparent in the way management discussed Matthews with reporters following a seven-game loss to Tampa in the spring.

“We’d love to make him a Leaf forever,” said team president Brendan Shanahan.

“We’re fortunate to have one of the best players in hockey under contract for two more years,” added general manager Kyle Dubas. “He’s a great player that we’d like to see play his whole career with Toronto. He wants to win more than anybody.”

That last part will loom large when it comes time for Dubas, Leafs assistant GM Brandon Pridham and agent Judd Moldaver of Wasserman Hockey to drill down on a deal that works for both parties. It’s pretty obvious that Matthews has earned a raise on his current $11.64-million annual salary, but how much higher can the Leafs go while still being able to build a top-quality roster around him?

And for how long?

We’re talking about a player who could basically name his number if he ever hit the open market, but also one who wants to ensure that he consistently has a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.

In an ideal world, the organization would love to lock Matthews up to a max-length eight-year extension. However, with the NHL’s salary cap due to start climbing an undetermined amount once owners have been repaid their COVID debts, that would probably require the team to stomach a punitive cap charge in the early stages of a contract where the player would almost certainly seek to protect his highest-earning years.

An extension covering fewer seasons would reduce the risk of Matthews missing out on a bigger payday in the event the industry experiences a major financial windfall. And it may ultimately prove more palatable for the Leafs, too, with subsequent decisions pending on William Nylander, Marner and others in a shifting landscape.

Based on what we know today, there’s every reason to believe the sides will end up being incentivized to work collaboratively on a new Matthews contract. They’ll have to find the sweet spot on term and dollars during the period following the Leafs last game in the spring and July 1.

Of course, none of that work can truly be done now.

For the time being it’s all just talk.

NorthStar Bets editorial Insiders have no influence, direct or otherwise, over the setting of odds advertised on our platforms.