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How the Auston Matthews contract clarifies the Leafs' salary cap picture

Getting Auston Matthews signed to a four-year extension helped the Maple Leafs understand how they'll allocate their resources going forward.

Signing Auston Matthews to an extension on Wednesday helped the Toronto Maple Leafs solidify their near-term future and keep their window of contention open.

It also brought some clarity to the team's salary cap situation.

Toronto's balance sheet for 2023-24 is extremely tight, as it has been since Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander signed long-term deals. But prior to the team extending its top center, it was sitting on a pile of cap space and not much else for 2024-25 and beyond.

Now the Maple Leafs have a little bit of structure.

Marner, Tavares, and Nylander's futures in Toronto have yet to be determined, but with Matthews in tow you can finally squint and see what the next couple of Maple Leafs teams might look like.

The Auston Matthews extension helps bring the Maple Leafs salary-cap picture into focus. (Gavin Napier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Auston Matthews extension helps bring the Maple Leafs salary cap picture into focus. (Gavin Napier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2024-25

Under contract: Auston Matthews ($13.25M), John Tavares ($11M), Mitch Marner ($10.9M), Morgan Rielly ($7.5M), David Kämpf ($2.4M), Calle Järnkrok ($2.1M), Jake McCabe ($2M), Ryan Reaves ($1.35M), Conor Timmins ($1.1M), Matthew Knies ($925K), Pontus Holmberg (800K), Joseph Woll ($767K)

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Expiring contracts: William Nylander, Tyler Bertuzzi, T.J. Brodie, John Klingberg, Max Domi, Sam Lafferty, Dylan Gambrell, Mark Giordano, Ilya Samsonov, Timothy Liljegren (RFA), Nicholas Robertson (RFA),

Cap space: $33.4 million.

Shopping list: A starting goaltender, two or three top-six forwards, one or two top-four defensemen, approximately three bottom-six forwards, at least one bottom-pair defenseman.

How does it look?: It's amazing how quickly $33.4 million can look like a paltry sum. Toronto will have money to spend on its 2024-25 roster, but it has many, many holes to fill.

Conversation about how the Maple Leafs handle their 2024-25 team building starts with Nylander. The Swedish winger has expressed a desire to stay, but his next contract will be costly. His first extension was approximately 60% of the first Matthews deal, and a similar structure would have him at $7.95 million on his next contract.

That's approximately what Jesper Bratt just got from the New Jersey Devils, so a heavier deal is to be expected if Nylander is staying. Timo Meier is an oft-cited comparable at $8.8 million, but Nylander has been a more reliable playmaker and point producer than Meier in recent seasons and could reasonably demand more. Keeping the Swede probably requires a commitment north of $9 million per season.

The goaltending market beyond Connor Hellebuyck and Samsonov looks grim following the 2023-24 season, which makes retaining Samsonov a defensible move if he plays well. But if he performs at a high enough level to justify an additional commitment, his price tag will soar from the $3.55 million he's making in the upcoming season.

Turning the crease over to Joseph Woll would be a radical cost-cutting possibility, but that would be risky even if he has a monster 2023-24 considering he'll enter that season with 11 games of NHL experience.

In a world where the Maple Leafs retain Nylander and Samsonov, they'd have less than $19 million to get another top-six forward, three bottom-six guys, and at least three defensemen — including at least one top-four guy. That assumes Knies can claim a top-six role, which is no guarantee. Another player who might affect the calculus there is Max Domi, who seems motivated to stay in Toronto if he proves to be a fit in 2023-24.

Pending RFA's Timothy Liljegren and Nick Robertson could help the situation by signing new contracts as neither has the NHL resume to command a massive sum — barring a breakout season. Robertson is tough to count on, though, and Liljegren has a lot to prove if he's going to assume a larger role.

Based on the money remaining, the Maple Leafs would probably have enough to splurge on one forward for the top six and one defenseman for the top four while filling out the rest of the roster with bargain-bin acquisitions, reclamation projects, and any surprise young players who break through.

If Nylander goes, Toronto would be able to spread things out a little more.

That option has some theoretical appeal, but without Nylander the team's offense would be extremely reliant on Matthews, Marner and Tavares — who will enter his age-34 season in 2024-25. There isn't much of a cast of secondary scorers in place, and importing them all via free agency and trade is unlikely to be an efficient way of doing business.

Woll claiming the crease would also change the situation significantly as he'd be a ludicrously cheap starting goaltender. If he were able to do that, Toronto could fill out its lineup more comfortably, but this season still seems likely to feature a top-heavy roster built with a patchwork bottom.

2025-26

Under contract: Auston Matthews ($13.25M), Morgan Rielly ($7.5M), David Kämpf ($2.4M), Calle Järnkrok ($2.1M), Ryan Reaves ($1.35M)

Expiring contracts: John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Jake McCabe, Joseph Woll (RFA), Conor Timmins (RFA)

Cap space: $65.4 million

Shopping list: Just about everything.

How does it look?: Before the Matthews extension, this season was a total black hole. Rielly plus a defensive specialist, a middle-six journeyman entering his 13th season, and an enforcer entering his age-39 season whose contract may have been buried in some manner by 2025 doesn't scream excitement.

If Marner returns taking the same percentage of the Matthews contract he signed for last time around, he'd be sitting at $12.41 million. Right now that sounds like a massive sum for the winger, but in 2025-26 it might not.

Instead, it would account for 13.4% of the projected cap — a negligible uptick from the 13.1% he's making in 2023-24, and a number that would decline over time.

Projecting him there would give the Maple Leafs approximately $53 million to build the rest of the team — minus any prior extensions for players like Nylander, Samsonov, Liljegren, etc...

Things would get interesting with Tavares. Entering his age-35 season, he simply would not command his current percentage of the projected cap in 2025-26, which would add up to $12.1 million. If he returned to Toronto, it would be at a discount on his current salary.

That's where the Maple Leafs could finally escape the cap crunch that's dogged them for years. A reasonable deal for an aging Tavares — or his departure — would have the cap working for Toronto instead of crushing the team under its weight.

It's impossible to mentally build this team out without knowing how the previous offseason went, but knowing Matthews is on the squad at a palatable percentage of the cap (14.4%) means Marner would be unable to command anything more than the franchise center to stay. Any Tavares salary would closely align with his market value (or even fall below it), putting the Maple Leafs in a position to build in a more balanced and conventional manner than during the flat-cap years.

Whether Toronto will turn that opportunity into a superior on-ice product is a different matter, but the problem of the early "Core Four" era probably wouldn't feel as acute.