Maple Leafs must proceed with Auston Matthews extension in mind
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews. Photo by Frank Gunn/CP

The post-mortems are still being penned on a record-setting season and already the clock starts ticking louder towards a day that could come to define the direction of the Maple Leafs more than any playoff disappointment.

July 1, 2023 looms as a landmark moment for the franchise and it’s close enough now to merit consideration in every key decision made this off-season.

That’s when Auston Matthews becomes eligible to sign an extension on a contract due to expire the following summer. It’s also when no-movement clauses for Matthews and Mitch Marner take effect – shifting considerable leverage over to the franchise cornerstones – and when William Nylander gains a 10-team no-trade list.

Really this is about Matthews, though, and what needs to happen over the next 13-plus months to ensure he’s eager to sign another contract in Toronto at the earliest available opportunity.

The five-year deal he landed coming out of entry level created a Gordian knot and there’s really no easy way for the organization to untangle it. Since his no-movement clause kicks in on the same day the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement first allows him to sign an extension, Matthews could conceivably choose to play out his remaining two years with the Leafs and walk directly into unrestricted free agency without any concern about being moved.

Unless, of course, the team decided to trade him by June 30, 2023 – but how could the Leafs possibly even consider doing that with one of the sport’s most unique talents unless he indicated a desire to test the open waters a full year before he can actually hit the open market?

They can’t and he won’t.

This isn’t meant to forecast trouble on the Matthews front as much as it is to frame some of the intriguing underlying dynamics facing the Leafs as they start to move past a sixth playoff series loss in six seasons.

They’ve got huge decisions to make and the franchise-defining one looming a year from now with Matthews needs to start being managed early. How general manager Kyle Dubas chooses to navigate the next few months, with an uncertain goaltending picture and perhaps a fundamental change or two to consider, will create an important context for his eventual talks with the player’s camp on an extension.

Matthews just completed one of the finest seasons in Leafs history. He was showered with chants of “MVP! MVP!” at Scotiabank Arena while scoring 60 goals and specifically mentioned his appreciation for the fanbase’s passionate support following Saturday’s Game 7 loss to the Lightning.

Next month he may yet add the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award to the Rocket Richard Trophy he’s already secured, but the guess here is that it won’t much matter in light of how early the Leafs season ended.

When I sat down with Matthews last September he made clear that his individual recognition didn’t soothe the pain of the team one his group has consistently fallen short of challenging.

“I won the Rocket last year, but obviously nobody really cares about that because of how everything ended, right?” Matthews said at the time. “To me, rightfully so. I want to win. That’s what I’m here to do and that’s what we want to do and that’s what we believe we’re going to do.

“All of that stuff is obviously fine but in the end it’s all about winning.”

The smart money when it comes to his priorities for the next contract is that it’s signed somewhere he believes he can win. Ideally, that’s in Toronto, where Matthews feels extremely comfortable, is on pace to rewrite the Leafs record book and has already invested a lot of effort trying to build towards winning a Stanley Cup.

There can’t be much mystery about what it would mean to eventually reach that goal after so much time and repeated disappointment. There’s arguably no higher peak to summit in the sport.

View it as the sort of challenge that drives a top athlete like the 24-year-old centre, which is convenient because it brings his goals in line with those of the organization that employs him.

However, it doesn’t come with any guarantees.

The truth of the matter is it’s too soon to say with any certainty how exactly this will play out. Everyone’s eyes will be on July 1, 2023 but no decisions can be finalized before then. Perhaps the general landscape shifts in the meantime – Nathan MacKinnon and David Pastrnak may sign early extensions in Colorado and Boston this summer, for example – and we will of course know by then if the 2022-23 Maple Leafs finally found their way over the hump.

What is certain is this: As the organization begins dusting itself off from the latest first-round playoff loss, the stakes have never been higher. 

The arrival of Matthews came with an explosion of hope for a lost franchise. And they could risk losing him if they don’t finally get it right.

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