Toronto Maple Leafs are banking on Auston Matthews
If the Coyotes had any dream of pirating homeboy Auston Matthews away from Toronto with a humongous restricted free agent offer sheet in July, all that crumbled into the desert sand Tuesday when the Maple Leafs dropped a mega “second” contract on the Scottsdale-raised center.
Beginning next season, Matthews, 21, will bank $11.634 million each of the next five seasons, roughly 6 percent more than the John Tavares superstar book rate in Toronto.
The Matthews-Tavares deals aren’t directly linked, of course, but it became obvious last July, upon Tavares’s arrival from Long Island as an unrestricted free agent, that his wage would frame all contract discussions at the top of the Leafs’ lineup. They still have a few deals to go, including the wizard-like Mitch Marner (RFA/July 1), and no doubt Marner’s representatives have screenshots of the Tavares/Matthews deals pasted to their foreheads in negotiations with general manager Kyle Dubas.
Marner led the Leafs in scoring last season. He leads them in scoring this season. Give that man his $11 million a year and make it snappy.
Like all teams, the Leafs cannot afford every shiny car in their showroom. Every team’s payroll has a ceiling, $79.5 million this season and likely to bump to around $83 million for 2019-20. It will be getting very tight quite soon for the Leafs, who on Dec. 1 kept William Nylander aboard for $45 million over six years.
Dubas is following the Tampa Bay model, constructed by outgoing GM Steve Yzerman, of pegging his team’s fate on a handful-plus of top-end, highly compensated performers. It has worked quite well in Tampa, albeit with perhaps the Lightning’s most important player, No. 1 goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, on the books for a budget–friendly $3.5 million, a mere $750,000 more than the Bruins are paying backup Jaroslav Halak.
It likely will play out well in Toronto, too, even if the Leafs don’t have the likes of the Norris-winning Victor Hedman on their blue line or the equal of Vasilevskiy in net. Dubas is betting on youth, speed, skill, and offense, the standard porridge of NHL 2019, and inevitably he will have to surround his core of 6-8 top-end earners with eager kids, and perhaps a sprinkling of vets, who are at the chump change end of the payroll.
The Matthews deal, and the one for Marner to follow, will have some impact around the league, particularly in that “second contract” market — kids who are transitioning out of the their entry level deals. That market began shifting dramatically in recent years, as Bruins fans witnessed in September 2017 when David Pastrnak shook $40 million/six years out of the Jacobs family room couch with his second deal.
Outside the Toronto market, the Matthews deal won’t have 21- and 22-year-olds raising their hands for $11 million, but that ceiling, however temporary, will have a way of justifying and lifting the floor. Which is to say Pastrnak’s $6.666 million payout, and Nylander’s at $6.92 million, will become the baseline in negotiations for truly gifted kids. All of a sudden $8 million a year looks like a comfortable fit for a GM with a hot shot on the rise. In Calgary, Johnny Gaudreau’s $6.75 million cap hit through 2021-22 is looking like a steal for the Flames.
Had Matthews hit the market as a restricted free agent, any of the league’s other 30 teams, including the Coyotes, could have offered him a max deal (seven years at just under $16 million a year). Viewed through that lens, the Leafs escaped with a comfortable savings.
To date, Brad Richards is the only player to land a max deal, be it as a free agent or through a negotiated extension, since the inception of the cap in the fall of 2005. The max is 20 percent of the league cap figure, which netted Richards $7.8 million per year when he signed with Tampa Bay for five on May 23, 2006. It remains more theory than reality, tucked in the CBA to accommodate the day if (when?) another Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux arrives on the scene. That player is not Matthews, at least not the current Matthews.
Keep in mind, Matthews will be only 26 at the expiration of his new deal and still in his prime, able to enter the UFA market. If he indeed blossoms as the game’s next mega talent, at that point he should have 4-5 prime seasons ahead of him, enough possibly to entice someone to max him out at a figure that then could be $18 million a year or more.
Gretzky, the most prolific scorer in history, was at his peak at the ages 22-25. He was 26 headed into the 1987-88 season (his last in Edmonton) and he posted 100-plus-point seasons in six of his next seven seasons. Lemieux, who piled up 10 seasons of 100-plus points, was 27 when he was struck by Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He put up his final 100-point season, 1996-97, at age 31.
It may not be fair to compare anyone to Gretzky or Lemieux. Given how the game has shrunk the numbers the last 25 years, it’s possible Matthews retires without a single 100-point season. But he has posted that $58.17 million payday, 93 percent of it to be paid through rolling signing bonuses, making him the newest, richest, youngest kid on the block.
Alex Ovechkin set the standard for all second contracts midway through the third year of his entry-level deal (the same point of his career where Matthews signed). Ovechkin, who clicked for 98 goals and 100 assists over his first two seasons, at age 22 signed a 13-year, $124 million pact with the Capitals, an annual payout of $9.538 million that represented 16.82 percent of the cap. If the cap lands at $83 million for next season, Matthews will be at 14 percent.
Deals of Ovechkin’s length are no longer allowed. It took yet another lockout for owners to get players to agree that no one can be tied up for more than eight years. Connor McDavid’s second deal in Edmonton was for eight years and $100 million, a 16.67 percent cap hit that came within a fraction of equaling Ovechkin’s second contract mark.
Richard Riot was another era
Only Bruins fans long in the tooth and partial to leather skates likely remember that Andy Hebenton, the ex-Ranger right winger who died late last month at age 89, played one season with the Bruins, what turned out to be his NHL swan song in 1963-64.
Hebenton went on to play 10 more seasons in the pros, mostly in the Western Hockey League, and in 1964-65 was a teammate of Tommy McVie (to this day a Bruins scout) on the WHL’s Portland Buckaroos. The Buckaroos coach: ex-Bruins defenseman Hal Laycoe.
Laycoe, who later coached the Kings and Canucks at the start of the ’70s, was a central character in perhaps hockey’s most infamous incident, starting the night at the Garden, March 13, 1955, when his hit on Canadiens icon Maurice Richard ultimately led days later to rioting in the Forum and in the streets of Montreal.
An ex-Canadiens teammate of the Rocket, Laycoe opened up a five-stitch gash on Richard’s face with a high stick as the Habs rushed the puck into Boston’s end. When the play was whistled down, the enraged Rocket, age 33, took his own stick to Laycoe, breaking it across his back. Laycoe, with gloves off, was poised for a fight. Instead, he was dealt a vicious assault.
His trademark fury ratcheting higher as he attempted to continue the beatdown on Laycoe, Richard fought off on-ice officials and ultimately knocked Cliff Thompson cold with two punches to the linesman’s kisser. Yep, old-time hockey right there.
Minor scraps, though increasingly rare, still bring NHL fans to their feet. Nothing today compares to the buckets of blood that were once the value added, if not the centerpiece of, the Original Six days and lasted into the ’80s.
NHL president Clarence Campbell summoned all concerned parties to his office in Montreal three days later. In his defense, a contrite Richard offered that his consuming rage led him to mistake Thompson for another player (presumably a Bruin, but who knows?).
Campbell rightly didn’t buy a word of it, and in his written decision said it was behavior “which cannot be tolerated by any player — star or otherwise.” Campbell ruled Richard out for the season, including three regular-season games and the entirety of the 1955 playoffs.
Some 64 years later, were the same to happen in Gary Bettman’s NHL, the ruling likely would disqualify the player for the following season as well, or possibly lifetime banishment.
Mayhem broke loose the next night, March 17, during a game at the Forum against the Red Wings. Campbell insisted on attending the game, arrived midway through the first period, and was attacked by one fan. A homemade tear gas canister went off in the stands (Go Habs Go!) and the game eventually was halted and declared a win for the Wings. Outside the Forum, rampant looting up and down Saint Catherine Street damaged dozens of shops and lasted until the wee hours of March 18, leading to scores of arrests and injuries.
That was your granddaddy’s NHL.
Toronto strikes prior to deadline
Still two weeks to go, but the Maple Leafs thus far own the best deal of the trade deadline season with their Jan. 28 acquisition of 6-foot-3-inch defenseman Jake Muzzin from the Kings. Cost: two prospects (Carl Grundstrom, Sean Durzi) and the Leafs’ first-round pick in this year’s draft.
Muzzin (1-2—3 in his first four games with Toronto), provides size, steadiness, and consistency that the Leafs have lacked on the blue line. He’s about the same size of ex-Leaf Dion Phaneuf, who remains in LA, but he’s far more agile, mobile, and disciplined. He is also four years younger.
The deadline is Feb. 25, 3 p.m. (Eastern), and big names such as Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, both with the Blue Jackets, remain up for grabs. No telling how many others are placed into the mix.
Detroit GM Ken Holland made clear to NHL.com that he’s ready to shake out the Winged Wheel sock drawer, willing to entertain offers on almost anyone — though don’t bet on him moving youngsters Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha or Tyler Bertuzzi.
A couple of names in Hockeytown that could be of interest for the Bruins: upcoming UFAs Gustav Nyquist and Thomas Vanek, both of whom would be candidates for second-line duty.
A right winger who shoots from the left side, the speedy Nyquist is a former University of Maine standout who looked capable of scoring 40 goals a year earlier in his career. He has never exceeded the 28 he put up in 2013-14. The well-traveled Vanek, who went from Vancouver to Columbus at the deadline last February, plays left wing and shoots from the right side.
Vanek was on the Bruins’ radar this time a year ago, but any interest ended when GM Don Sweeney landed Rick Nash from the Rangers.
Tiny’s record lasted until Rask
Tuukka Rask, now the Bruins’ all-time winner in net, grew up in Savonlinna, Finland, about a half-hour from the Russian border and a world away from the mining town of Sandon, British Columbia, where Cecil “Tiny” Thompson was born. Until Rask, Thompson held the standard for Bruins goalies with 252 wins.
Apprised that Sandon became a ghost town in the mid-20th century, Rask quipped that Savonlinna “is almost the same . . . not quite a ghost town, I would say, but kind of like anywhere in Finland during the winter it’s dark and not so pleasant.”
Savonlinna’s summers are much more welcoming, added Rask. The town of 30,000-plus features a world famous opera festival each summer that is staged inside a 17th century castle. Rask and family return there every summer.
“We grew up playing hockey just outside in the backyard and outside rinks,” he recalled. “Pretty similar to Canada.”
Though born in Sandon, Thompson spent most of his childhood in Calgary. He picked up the nickname Tiny as a teenager when he was actually the tallest player on his amateur team. In his NHL days, he was 5-10, actually an inch taller than Frank Brimsek, the proud son of Eveleth, Minn., who succeeded him in the Boston net.
In possession of a wild-card spot at the start of the week, the Wild’s playoff chances dimmed considerably Tuesday night when they lost grinding center Mikko Koivu for the season in a collision with Buffalo’s Tage Thompson. Koivu, 35 and closing in on 1,000 games, blew out his right ACL and tore some of the knee’s cartilage, delivering him to surgery by end of the week. Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock on the loss of Koivu and his ability, much like that of Patrice Bergeron, to eliminate top players: “I’m sure there’s a lot of players in this league who play against Koivu who’ll be thinking, ‘Finally, we don’t have to play against that weight and size.’ ” Koivu is 6-3, 220 pounds . . . As of Tuesday morning, both the Blackhawks (in Boston on Tuesday) and Red Wings were tucked neatly among the bottom five in the overall standings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NHL season in the post-Original-Six era has ended with those two storied franchises both in the bottom five . . . Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, will be at the Garden with the Avalanche Sunday at 3 p.m. Headed into weekend play, he ranked sixth in league scoring with 72 points and possibly will blow through the career-high 97 he posted last season. He signed his long-term extension in 2016, with a cap hit ($6.3 million) that also looks a bit thin when compared to the Auston Matthews deal. MacKinnon’s pact runs through the spring of 2023 . . . Noted here last week, the league’s salary cap, originally $39 million, has increased by some 104 percent to $79.5 million over 13 years, an average annual boost of 8 percent. Longtime hockey notes reader James Maguire quibbled with that simple math, noting the surge is more accurately portrayed as compound interest, an annual rate of 5.7 percent. Your faithful puck chronicler feels 8 percent shame . . . Not too late to get your tickets for the Face Off For Ace annual fund-raiser, March 6 at the Royal Sonesta in Cambridge. Ex-Bruin Bill Guerin will be guest speaker. All proceeds benefit the Ace Bailey Children’s Foundation and its efforts at the Floating Hospital for Children. For ticket info: acebailey.org. Bailey, the ever-gregarious former Bruin, was 53 when he was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks . . . No firm date set, but look for the NHL’s new Seattle franchise to pick its name by the end of the summer.
Two hockey spots that would have been fun to witness last week: 1. With the Flyers at their Voorhees practice rink, where they tutored blind students in how to skate and the basics of hockey; 2. On the subway in downtown Toronto when the Leafs, in full uniform, hopped aboard to make their way to an outdoor practice near City Hall. “Makes you feel like a kid,” said a bemused John Tavares. They all wore their helmets. In the interest of subway flooring and passengers’ toes, the boys didn’t wear their skates on board.