From the beginning of the offseason, new Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving indicated that re-signing Auston Matthews was his top priority.
On Wednesday, Treliving managed to cross that off his to-do list by inking the franchise center to a four-year extension worth a reported $53 million. The $13.25-million average annual value, which kicks in for the 2024-25 season, is the highest in the NHL.
Toronto was reportedly seeking a maximum-term extension, but the superstar opted for a shorter term. That should give him the opportunity to land one more massive contract. If he'd signed on for eight years, his next chance to cash in would've come on the precipice of his age-35 season.
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
The 25-year-old scored 40 goals and produced 85 points in 74 games in 2022-23 — an outstanding campaign by any reasonable standard, but a step back from a 60-goal performance in 2021-22 that resulted in a Hart Trophy win.
Since Matthews broke into the NHL in 2016-17, he's scored more goals than any other player (299), collected two Rocket Richard Trophy wins, led the league in even-strength scoring four times, and earned Selke Trophy votes on five occasions.
Although the Maple Leafs may have preferred to lock in Matthews for the longest period of time possible, this deal extends their competitive window by a significant margin. If the star center bolted following 2023-24, the team would've been in dire straits.
David Kämpf is under contract through 2026-27, but beyond the defensive specialist, the Maple Leafs didn't have many long-term options at center. John Tavares can become a free agent following 2024-25 and the team's farm system lacks likely top-six options down the middle.
With Matthews in tow, the Maple Leafs have a foundational player to build around, and cost certainty that will help them plan for the future. Although his cap hit is substantial, Matthews looks like one of the better investments an NHL team could make.
As well as being an outstanding scorer, he's also a strong defensive presence and excellent faceoff man with a history of driving the play at even strength. As long as he's in the midst of his physical prime, he projects to be one of the 10 best players the league has to offer.
The biggest knock on Matthews is probably that he tends to miss a few games each year and has only played every Maple Leafs game in a season twice in his career. Even so, he's never played fewer than 75.6% of his team's games in a single season, and has laced up for 89.7% overall. For durability to be a serious concern, Toronto would have to believe he's on the verge of significant physical deterioration, which seems unlikely at his age.
Having Matthews locked in keeps Toronto's competitive window open, but the last seven years prove that his presence is no guarantee of playoff success. The Maple Leafs have one series win during his tenure, and his own personal postseason record (22 goals and 44 points in 50 games) is underwhelming in the context of his regular-season accomplishments.
The Maple Leafs are hoping the best is yet to come for Matthews in the playoffs. Whether that comes to fruition may depend on the team they assemble around him in the years ahead.