TORONTO (Jan. 12) — Less than six months from now looms one of the most–compelling dates in the modern history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or, so it appears. Whether July 1, 2023 becomes such a colossus will be determined in the ensuing half–decade. Right now, it is nearly impossible to provide an accurate forecast.
As most Leafs fans are aware, no–movement clauses (NMC) in the contracts of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner come into effect on July 1 of this year. It will transfer contract control from the team to the player as Matthews and Marner approach unrestricted free agency toward their second National Hockey League pacts. For the Leafs, this is a monumental occasion. As it pertains to Matthews, July 1 coincides with the day he can first sign a contract extension with the Blue and White. If the two parties have agreed to remain together, the follow–up announcement will be a formality. What if, however, Matthews and the Maple Leafs are not on the same page approaching the start of July? The club would have roughly 2½ weeks from the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs in June to either close the gap… or (gulp!) trade Matthews before his no–movement clause becomes functional.
Chris Johnston wrote this in the Toronto Star last Sep. 15: “There simply isn’t a set of circumstances imaginable where either the player or team would benefit from having him play out the final year of his current deal in 2023–24.” In my view, Chris was half–right. The Maple Leafs absolutely must avoid such a circumstance, as Matthews would be eligible to walk for nothing after the ’23–24 season. But, what does Auston have to lose? From this perspective, only a career–threatening injury while playing out his option. Otherwise, No. 34 will be holding all the negotiating cards on July 1, 2024 as one of the most–attractive unrestricted free agents in the history of the sport.
Expect that all three California teams — Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose — would show abundant interest.
Also keep an eye on the markedly improved Seattle Kraken (more below).
Marner’s situation isn’t quite as urgent. Though he also must agree to any trade proposal after July 1 of this year, he cannot walk until the summer of 2025. Providing the Leafs, minimally, a guaranteed extra year of service. Additionally, Marner will be 28 when eligible for free agency; Matthews, only 25 and, physiologically, still approaching his prime. As the NHL’s most–recent 60–goal shooter, we can barely imagine the bidding war that might ensue between a handful of teams. So, Auston will be front–and–center amid the hockey club’s plans moving forward.
Other variables could come into play.
What if, for example, the Maple Leafs are eliminated, yet again, in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring? Marking the seventh consecutive occasion with Matthews and Marner as the franchise cornerstones. It appears rather inconceivable, under that circumstance, for general manager Kyle Dubas to be offered a new contract by the team; he is working in the final year of his current pact. Would a new GM — an impartial executive with no ties to the current roster — simply open the vault for Matthews? Or, might he examine the dubious regularity of post–season failure and guide the club in a different direction? Were I a betting man, I’d choose Door No. 2.
Supposing the Leafs finally do advance beyond the opening round for the first time in 19 years, but fail to pose a Stanley Cup challenge. Would that be sufficient for Dubas to remain as GM, thereby keeping the expectation bar as low as possible? And, would it be enough reason for the Maple Leafs to secure No. 34 for the remainder of his fruitful NHL years, possibly setting up the team for continued playoff misadventure?
What direction does the club take in the unlikely event that Matthews has already indicated his desire to test the open market next summer, regardless of any Leafs overture? Would a practical GM vow to continue with such a player beyond even the Mar. 3 NHL trade deadline of this season? All of these questions are paramount, mainly because the Maple Leafs haven’t enjoyed a smidgen of playoff success with the current roster nucleus.
If nothing else, the next 5½ months should be among the most–fascinating in recent franchise lore.
MATTHEWS PHOTO COURTESY THE TORONTO STAR
WHAT A ROAD TRIP…
By handing the Boston Bruins their first regulation home loss of the season (3–0) on Thursday night, the Seattle Kraken has won six consecutive games on its current road swing, knocking off Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Buffalo and the Bruins. Seattle finishes the trip at Chicago on Saturday night. The second–year club is now 25–12–4 for 54 points on the season, two out of first place in the Pacific Division and 10th overall in the NHL, one point ahead of Tampa Bay.
The Kraken won 27 games in its expansion season and compiled 60 points
Quite a remarkable story developing in the American northwest.
MY VINTAGE NHL JERSEYS — Part 2
More designs from those which I’ve collected through the years…
Perhaps the favorite of all my vintage jerseys (above): a sweater replica of that worn by Bobby Orr during his rookie season, 1966–67, with the Boston Bruins. The following year, the Bruins modified their home and road designs (below), wearing these outfits through 1973–74.
Sweater replica (above) of the road jersey worn by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1967–68, their first NHL season. Pittsburgh altered its home design (bottom–left) in 1968–69; a near–duplicate (right) commissioned for the first Bridgestone Winter Classic outdoor game, in 2008.
The New York Islanders completely redesigned the original uniform worn by the club in its Stanley Cup dynasty (1980–83). This version (above) created abundant controversy, with its wavy stripes and “Captain Highliner” logo. It was worn only during the 1996–97 season, after which the Islanders re–positioned their original logo on the same jersey design (for one more season).
The Arizona Coyotes have returned to their original jersey (top–left, middle), which featured a rather unique, multi–colored logo. The club, then known as the Phoenix Coyotes, wore this uniform on the road in 1996–97, after re–locating from Winnipeg. In 2003–04, the Coyotes switched to a brick–red–and–sand color (far–right), wearing it at home through the 2006–07 season.
Sweater design (top–left) of the classic New York Rangers jersey, worn today on the road. And, the green Hartford Whalers uniform (right), worn between 1979–80 and 1991–92.
The California Seals adopted the uniform design, above (gold at home; green on the road), for the 1970–71 season, upon being purchased by Oakland A’s baseball owner Charles O. Finley. In its final two NHL seasons (1974–75 and 1975–76), the club changed colors (below) to “surfer” blue and “California” gold. The franchise re–located to Cleveland in 1976–77.
The blue jersey (top–left) worn on the road by the Vancouver Canucks from 1971–72 to 1977–78. The St. Louis Blues wore the uniform, top–right, on the road from 1995 to 1998. Including, the brief time in which Wayne Gretzky played for the club (1995–96).
Sweater replica of the white Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, circa 1945–48.
The original Colorado Rockies (before Major League Baseball “stole” the name) wore these jerseys (blue on the road) from 1976–77 to 1981–82. The franchise had moved to Denver from Kansas City. It then re–located to East Rutherford, New Jersey (as the Devils) for 1982–83.