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Maple Leafs sign Auston Matthews to lucrative five-year contract extension


TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs got their man and some salary cap certainty. Auston Matthews got rich.

The Leafs signed their 21-year-old star centre Tuesday to a US$58.17, five-year contract extension with an average annual value of $11.634 million.

Matthews will be 26 when the deal expires in 2023-24. Unless something untoward happens in between, an even bigger Brink's truck will be needed then given he will be an unrestricted free agent.

"Regardless if I'm making $1 or $11 million, I'm not going to change who I am," a relaxed Matthews told eight TV cameras and a phalanx of some three dozen media squeezed into in the Leafs dressing room.

"Nothing really changes for me," he added. "I'm going to be myself every day. I'm going to have fun. I get to play hockey and do what I love. Now I'm fortunate to do it for a lot of money ... I feel very fortunate and very lucky — especially to do it in a city of Toronto."

Signing now gives Leafs GM Kyle Dubas a clearer picture of his salary cap ahead with the Feb. 25 trade deadline looming.

With William Nylander signing a six-year extension in December — with an average annual value of $10.2 million this season and $6.9 million in the next five — and veteran John Tavares on Year 1 of a seven-year, $77-million deal, the focus now switches to 21-year-old winger Mitch Marner. 

Like Marner, Matthews was eligible to become a restricted free agent on July 1 after their three-year entry-level deals expire. Contract talks with Marner, however, have been put on hold until after the season at agent Darren Ferris's request.

"We're respecting the wishes of Darren," said Dubas. "If they were to change their stance on it, then we're open to that. But for right now, we'll respect their wishes and we'll carry on with the season here."

Added Dubas: "When they're ready to sit down, we'll talk. He's going to be a Toronto Maple Leaf for a long time, regardless of how we have to come to that."

In addition to Marner, Toronto has some more loose ends. Forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson and backup goalie Garret Sparks are eligible to become restricted free agents while defenceman Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey are headed towards unrestricted free agency.

Asked about Kapanen and Johnsson, Dubas said talks would probably start after the trade deadline.

The goal is to keep the Toronto talent together for as long as possible. Going into league play Tuesday, the Leafs ranked fourth in the league with a 32-17-3 record.

Dubas said talks over a new deal for Matthews started last July with Matthews adding they talked contracts with a range in terms from three years to eight. The Matthews camp initially wanted longer term, which carries a higher average annual value, but agreed on the five-year deal giving the Leafs more flexibility, Dubas suggested.

"We're trying to build a team that can have sustained success, not just contend once," Dubas said. "You look, there's a litany of teams all across every professional sport, they're very good teams for a long time but they can't ever push it across the finish line. I think a lot of that is luck-related and luck-based.

"I think we want to give ourselves the maximum number of chances we can to make a real good go at it. In saying that, keeping the young core of our team together and then building out a program where they want to stay here on their subsequent contracts, I think that falls on us. It doesn't fall on the players."

Matthews is on board.

"(The fans) want a championship team and we want to give it to them," he said. "This city deserves it."

The 21-year-old Marner leads the Leafs in scoring this season with 63 points (20 goals and 43 assists). Tavares is second with 56 points (31 goals and 25 assists) with defenceman Morgan Rielly third with 52 (13 goals and 39 assists) and Matthews fourth with 46 (23 goals and 23 assists).

Matthews has only played 38 of Toronto's 52 games due to injury, however.

"He's a centre and he scores at an elite elite rate that few have matches in their first three years of hockey," said Dubas.

The first overall draft pick in 2016, Matthews has 97 goals and 81 assists in 182 regular-season games with the Leafs.

His three-year entry-level deal called for him to make the maximum $925,000 a year.

The bulk of Matthews's deal is in signing bonuses. He will make just $700,000 in salary each of the two years and then $750,000 for the next three while getting bonuses of $15.2 million, $15.2 million, $9.72 million, 7.2 million and $7.2 million.

The bonus route has been a growing trend in the league. Such contracts make it more difficult to buy out a player's contract because the reduced salary numbers mean there is little salary cap relief in doing so.

The 34 at the end of the annual value of his new deal appears to be a nod to Matthews' uniform number.

Tavares also went the bonus route with a salary listed at a mere $650,000 this season. Reportedly almost $71 million of his Toronto deal comes in the form of signing bonuses.

The former NHL rookie of the year from Scottsdale, Ariz., has represented Toronto at the NHL all-star game in each of his three seasons.

"I don't think there's anything like playing in this city," Matthews said of his NHL home. "From our fans, the support we get day in and day out, walking around the street getting recognized, I mean that's not something I imagined when I was a kid growing up in Arizona."

Matthews was headed for a family dinner Tuesday to celebrate his new-found fortune. Toronto hosts the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press