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It’s Not Auston Matthews’ Fault: The System is Broken for Fans

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews are working on a contract extension. It will be difficult. What are the complexities involved?

What sets Auston Matthews apart from other NHL hockey players is that he’s good – really good. That talent now puts him in a situation where he’s able to pursue flexibility in his contract. And he likely will in his next contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Who really blames him? He’s a world-class talent in the professional sports world. And a very, very few of the very special talents will have it made financially. Expect Matthews to be rewarded handsomely.  

Auston Matthews will get a big payday.

Some (most?) Maple Leafs’ fans would wish their favourite players would commit to long-term deals with the team they root for. And, while Matthews might do so, he has shown a willingness to explore different options.

There’s a good chance that he will utilize his next contract to gain maximum flexibility. He wants to win the lottery when the NHL’s salary cap starts to climb. 

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: O’Reilly, Matthews & Liljegren

The NHL Is Not the NBA – Yet

The kind of contract flexibility in the NHL now has started to align with the modern trend seen in other professional sports. Here I’m thinking baseball but especially basketball. In the NBA, players often seek opportunities to change teams for a number of different reasons.

Matthews’ Financial Considerations Should Not Be Minimized 

Matthews’ pursuit of financial riches cannot be dismissed. He’s one of the NHL’s best players, and that gives him both the right and the potential to sign a huge contract over a shorter term. If he signs shorter-term deals, he’ll be able to position himself for larger contracts in the near future.

 And as I noted, the near future is when the salary cap will begin to climb upward after the pandemic had Pac-Maned its way through the players’ salaries (escrow) and halted their increased earnings. COVID cost everyone.

Professional Sport Is a Battle Between Players and Teams for Finite Funds

Professional sports have always been a battleground when it comes to players and teams negotiating contracts and salaries. The NHL is no exception. Players seek the best deals for their talents; and, conversely, teams strive to build competitive rosters within the constraints of the salary cap. 

MItch Marner Maple Leafs 4
MItch Marner’s agent squeezed the Maple Leafs hard/

Ironically, those things DO NOT go hand in hand. The finances are finite (given the hard salary cap). When $2 million more goes to Matthews, it can’t go to bringing in a third-line shutdown center like David Kampf. As a result, when Matthews (or Mitch Marner, or anyone) signs for more, someone else gets shafted. Where will Kampf be next season?

Fans Are Getting Frustrated

That’s the current system; and, to be honest, I have no solid ideas about how I would fix it. As I said, I don’t blame Matthews; and, I don’t blame the Maple Leafs. 

Matthews’ choice between his loyalty to the team and his personal wealth has led to an unfortunate situation where fans are left feeling frustrated. At the same time, players are unfairly criticized for maximizing their earnings. While I can’t imagine what the difference between being paid $12 million and being paid $14 million feels like, I don’t blame a youngster for going for $14 million instead of taking $12 million. What agent would tell their client to leave $2 million on the table so his team could bring in a player who could help them win? There is a certain weird irony to that thinking.

The Pursuit of Maximum Earnings 

In today’s sports landscape, athletes are pressured to sign the most lucrative contracts they can. This pressure comes from a ton of different places. It includes the desire to create financial security for themselves and their families, the influence of agents and player associations, and players’ constantly evolving market value. 

In some ways, it’s also a measure of how good you are as a player. The more you make, the better you are. A contract becomes a measure of self-worth.

The escalating salaries in professional sports, including hockey, are a reflection of these dynamics.

Are Players Mercenaries, Or Is the System Broken?

While some fans see players solely as mercenaries, it’s essential to understand that players are simply playing by the rules and opportunities they are presented and that have become normalized. As in any other profession, players are entitled to pursue the best financial compensation for their skills and contributions. It isn’t fair to fault them for trying to maximize their earnings within the rules established by the league.

Auston Matthews Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews has to be considering his time with the Maple Leafs.

The broken system lies in the imbalance between player salaries and the fan experience. While players sign lucrative contracts, fans often bear the brunt of rising ticket prices, expensive merchandise, and all the other costs associated with supporting their favourite teams. The increasing financial burden on fans can make it challenging for anyone – except the very wealthy – to engage with the sport they love up close at the arena where their team can be cheered for live.

The salary cap system also contributes to the disparity between players’ salaries and the fans’ experience. The salary cap was introduced to promote parity and maintain competitive balance among teams. However, it often leads to teams struggling to retain star players. 

As a result, a player like Matthews could one day end up in a constant blender of different rosters where he might engage in a sort of drive-by loyalty for his teams. On the other end, fans lose their favourite players, who quickly move from one team to another. 

Such a revolving door of players will diminish the emotional connection between fans and their teams. Perhaps fans can be blamed for caring too much; but, fans can also become disconnected and disillusioned.

Fan Expectations About Loyalty

Fans have high expectations for their teams. They hope for loyalty from players. However, it is important to recognize that loyalty is a two-way street. Players owe their loyalty to their teammates, coaches, and organizations, but not necessarily to a specific city or fan base. 

Expecting players to prioritize loyalty over their own personal and financial aspirations is unrealistic and ignores the realities of professional sports.

It’s worth noting that some players choose to stay with a single team their entire careers. Such actions embody loyalty. However, these players should be appreciated for their choices rather than using them as a standard that measures how other players live.

The Bottom Line

In the NHL, players are often criticized for seeking maximum earnings and exercising their right to negotiate contracts. It creates a disconnect between the players’ pursuit of wealth and the fans’ ability to engage with the sport fully.

That said, it seems illogical to blame players for taking advantage of the system. They’re simply navigating within the rules and opportunities presented. Instead, it seems important for me to admit the broken system. Only then can we work toward finding ways to strike a better balance between player salaries and their fan’s experience.

Professional hockey is such a great game. But it could be better if it were more aligned with what fans desired. Although I don’t know what it might be, I believe there are ways to create a better experience for everyone who cares.

Related: Ryan O’Reilly’s Dilemma: Maple Leafs or Bigger Payday?



  1. Subber

    June 9, 2023 at 4:45 am

    4 players make up 50% of the salary cap for the Leafs. Soon to be 3 players making up 50% of the salary cap. Mind-blowing.

  2. Chris

    June 9, 2023 at 7:03 am

    You didn’t address that someone moving around frequently is less likely to win the cup, given that team building and chemistry are an important contributor to success, and that the more a player takes of the pie, the less is left over for building a winning roster. With the Leafs, for example, even a couple of million dollars could have helped with the goalie situation and might have tipped the scales to further playoff success.

  3. afp1961

    June 9, 2023 at 7:07 am

    Jim – as a businessman, I totally agree with your post. I believe Matthews is trying to become the 1st 200M NHL player. He will bet on himself and go for a 3-5 year deal somewhere around $13.4- $13.5M AAV. This will allow him to see how the leafs are structured at the end of the deal and whether they remain competitive (or not). By the end of this next deal, Matthews will have also given the leafs between 11 & 13 years of his career and be approx 29-31 years of age and looking for his last big payday and likely a longterm deal at that.

  4. Jon Harding

    June 9, 2023 at 7:34 am

    If the Leafs have to stretch into the 13.5 or 14-range for Matthews, so be it. As much as it makes Paul Marner gnash his teeth, Matthews is the anchor of all things with the Leafs. From there, they need to trade the player that is most likely headed for an impasse due to their own skewered view of their self worth, between Marner and Nylander, and for which the return will be greatest. That return must be something different than an offensive-minded forward, either of or a combination of very good, hard-nosed and stalwart defenceman, high end and well-rounded centre (think Ryan O’Reilly of four years ago), a serious No. 1 goalie, or multiple draft picks that they can turn into real NHL players over the next four or five years. Sorry Dubas fans, but watching the Cup final has driven home how naive, idealistic, arrogant, stubborn and amateurish he was as GM of the Leafs. Here’s my bet: Dennis Malgin ends up with the Penguins and Dubas lasts some part of two seasons in Pittsburgh, before heading back to Sault Ste. Marie.

  5. Vince

    June 9, 2023 at 2:31 pm

    How can anyone think Matthew’s is key. Give your head a shake 298 of 299 goals assisted by who. Never started scoring till the second half of the season when who was put back on his line. He is not even an average centre his pay should be reduced. Trading him is the best decision this team could possibly make

  6. Pingback: Maple Leafs Quick Hits: Shane Doan Shares His Thoughts

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