During a recent news conference hosted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews and General Manager (GM) Brad Treliving shed light on the contract negotiation process that resulted in Matthews’ new deal. Matthews articulated that the decision to agree on a four-year term was driven by his own comfort level and the team’s desire for flexibility. When Treliving took the floor, he commended Matthews for his leadership and his role in achieving a harmonious contract negotiation.
Treliving underscored the significance of striking a balance between the length of contracts and financial considerations, especially given the constraints of the salary cap. However, his labeling of Matthews’ involvement as “leadership” was a misnomer. What he should have said, if he was going to broach the subject at all, was that Matthews wisely used his “leverage” to get a deal everyone could live with.
Acknowledging Matthews’ elite talent, Treliving remarked, “You are talking about one of the world’s best talents. In the situation he was in, he could come in and demand a whole lot more than what he got. That’s just the reality.” Treliving also noted that the agreement materialized because of Matthews’ expressed desire to finalize it, aiming to shift the focus toward team performance and success.
Despite the outward impression, the deal’s outcome was never in doubt. Insiders consistently predicted an average annual value (AAV) of around $13 to $13.5 million, closely aligned with the eventual $13.25 million figure. Treliving’s statement that the deal reflects leadership only partially aligns with reality. The Leafs accepted the four-year term, a point on which Matthews was steadfast. He accepted becoming the NHL’s highest-paid player under these terms and included record-breaking signing bonuses, demonstrating his resolve in negotiations.
By No Means Is This Deal “Team Friendly”
Contrary to notions of a “team-friendly” contract, this deal might not immediately impact the Leafs but could potentially encumber them in five years. Knowing he was still going to cash in around the age of 30, a more cooperative contract could have provided the team with greater maneuverability to construct a championship-caliber roster in the now. As the Leafs have yet to advance past the second round of the playoffs, this agreement positions Matthews for another substantial payday while allowing the team to barely “afford” him.
Treliving seemed aware of the dynamics at play, conceding, “What I’ve really learned through this process, is how smart he [Matthews] is. He takes in a lot of information. He’s an independent thinker. He’s very cerebral.” The reference to Matthews’ cerebral approach highlights his strategic thinking, capacity to grasp the intricate facets of both the game and the business, and his ability to make calculated decisions on and off the ice.
Make no mistake, there’s nothing wrong with what Matthews did. The NHL is a business and contract negotiations are a big part of it, especially when you consider how vastly underpaid NHL athletes are to other athletes in professional sports. Matthews used his leverage as a star, he waited for his contract to give him the power to walk away from the team, and he parlayed that into the highest annual average salary in the league. One can argue he’s not even in the top three in terms of the best players, but that’s not the issue here. Toronto needed him, he knew it, and he used it.
Treliving Was Right to Say What He Said, He Was Just Lying
Treliving pumped the tires of his player. There’s nothing wrong with that either. In fact, it would have been odd to say that Matthews held the Maple Leafs to the fire, if only because it would put intense pressure on the center and the fans would have turned. But, for any fans who can’t see through how all of this eventually played out, the mistake of giving Matthews credit for being a “leader” and suggesting he might be captain material could lead to big disappointment.
Matthews set the bar. It just wasn’t one that the Maple Leafs should be terribly happy with. In his latest 32 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman got into a discussion about what Matthews’ new deal means for Mitch Marner. He noted, “What is Marner’s next number? Because he was the closest one to Matthews. When Matthews signed for 11.634 AAV all of a sudden Marner became close to an $11M player, so now Matthews’ number is 13.25, what’s Marner’s number? Is it 13.249999?” The fact this is already where the conversation is going is not a good sign.
Treliving’s choice of words inadvertently underscored the nuanced interplay between leadership and leverage in professional sports negotiations — what Matthews did leaned more towards the side of leverage.
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