TORONTO (May 22) — This came out of nowhere on Sunday night from an individual that is well–connected to the Toronto Maple Leafs; someone who knows all the players, personally. It was one man’s opinion and must be considered with restraint. But, it could also be 100 percent accurate. In a brief email exchange, I was told, verbatim, that “Auston Matthews wants to play in California, not re–sign here.” Which is noticeably (though not diametrically) in contrast to the message delivered by Matthews at the end–of–season media gathering last Monday. When No. 34 said it was “my intention” to remain with the Leafs on a long–term contract that can be signed as early as July 1, the same day he acquires complete control over his future with a full no–movement clause.
Matthews was hardly conclusive in his remarks, nor should he have been.
Other than the risk, next season, of a career–threatening injury, he has nothing to lose by playing out his option and testing the open market a year from now, when he can evaluate the trajectory of the Leafs after the 2023–24 schedule. There is simply no reason for him to engage with the club, financially, this summer. Neither am I suggesting he was insincere in his reply to reporters. But, he did not make a verbal commitment. His comments, in fact, weren’t nearly as forceful as those offered by John Tavares toward the New York Islanders in the early summer of 2018. There was no question that Tavares wished to remain with the club that drafted him first, overall, nine years earlier. But, his signature ultimately appeared on a seven–year document provided by the Maple Leafs.
Behind closed doors — even amid all the front office turmoil of the past week — the Leafs must have some idea where Matthews stands on his future. There are loud whispers about Auston being upset that the club severed its nine–year relationship, last Friday, with general manager Kyle Dubas; the two men were particularly close. If unwilling to risk that he walks next summer for no return, the club can trade Matthews only until Canada Day, not afterward. For those not counting, July 1 comes around a mere 39 days from now. Time is obviously of the essence.
The intent of an elite athlete on the cusp of unrestricted free agency doesn’t always prevail. In this case, there’s an obvious potential wild card with Matthews hailing from the western United States. Given question marks surrounding the future of the Arizona Coyotes after last week’s ‘NO’ vote on the referendum for a new arena, it’s unlikely Matthews would return to the Scottsdale area, where he grew up. But, Los Angeles could be an appealing destination, as could San Jose. Even Seattle has grown immeasurably as a landing spot after only its second National Hockey League season (for those not paying attention, the Kraken out–victoried the Maple Leafs, 7–5, in the playoffs this spring). Chicago is swimming in cap space ($41,844,877, according to capfriendly.com) and will have the celebrated Connor Bedard under entry level salary restriction for the first three years of his career. It’s not difficult to envision Matthews and Bedard forming the nucleus of another potential Blackhawks dynasty. Point is, Auston will have a plethora of opportunity if he plays out the final season of his contract with the Maple Leafs.
I would therefore encourage even the most dyed–in–the–wool hockey fans in this city to neither minimize or disregard the one–line email from my Leafs–related friend. Remember: It “never rains in southern California.”
OH, IF THE LEAFS COULD LAND McPHEE: The idea originated, not surprisingly, with TSN hockey guru Craig Button, so I cannot take credit. But, Craig’s proposal that the Maple Leafs pursue George McPhee as general manager eliminated, in my view, all other candidates. McPhee would imbue the Leafs with instant, veteran credibility and offer the club a legitimate chance to finally end the longest–ever Stanley Cup drought. There is neither an in–house nominee nor a recycled National Hockey League executive that offers such a wondrous catch for the Blue and White. For this to become a possibility, however, two things would need to happen: a) the Vegas Golden Knights winning the 2023 Stanley Cup, and b) the Maple Leafs severing ties with Brendan Shanahan. Not that Shanahan couldn’t contribute to a Toronto playoff uprising. It’s just that McPhee is currently the president of hockey operations in Las Vegas, holding down the same blanket authority as Shanahan with the Maple Leafs. Under no circumstance would he come here while having to report to anyone beneath the board of directors.
So, the concept is quite improbable. At this time.
If, however, the Golden Knights win their first NHL title, McPhee could be open to a new challenge — perhaps the ultimate challenge in professional hockey: getting the Leafs over the hump. Remember, this is an executive who pulled off the most–astonishing feat in North American pro sport: building an expansion team that played for the Stanley Cup in its inaugural season. McPhee was the first GM of the Knights, before kicking himself upstairs and elevating assistant Kelly McCrimmon to the big chair. In the 2017 expansion draft, McPhee procured such players as Jonathan Marchessault (from Florida), who has scored 148 regular–season goals for Vegas; William Karlsson (from Anaheim: 43 goals for the first–year Knights) and future Hall–of–Fame goalie Marc–Andre Fleury (after three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh). Incredibly, the Golden Knights tore a swath through the Western Conference in the 2018 playoffs, eliminating Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg in only three games over the 12–game minimum. Vegas ultimately lost the championship round to Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. McPhee was named the NHL’s general manager–of–the–year and winner of the Sam Pollock Award as best GM by The Hockey News.
Prior to Las Vegas, McPhee (a dead–ringer for quarterback Aaron Rodgers) spent 17 years running the Capitals. He drafted Ovechkin first overall in 2004, not thinking Alex the Great would one day threaten Wayne Gretzky’s career goals mark. George’s first NHL job was with Vancouver, helping Pat Quinn build the team that lost the 1994 Stanley Cup final in Game 7 to the New York Rangers. McPhee is not only an astute hockey evaluator but one of the most–intense competitors at the managerial level. He possesses every ounce of the “bite” and fierce negotiating posture that Elliotte Friedman referred to as a prerequisite for the next Toronto GM. A man that would stand up to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander in the critical contract bargaining that lays ahead.
But, he will not consider the Maple Leafs under the current executive structure, with Shanahan firmly at the summit. Should that not change, it’s inevitable the Leafs will settle on a former GM, looking to return, that has no issue reporting to the president, who reports to the board. McPhee would require — and has richly earned — the authority that he occupies with the Golden Knights. Only then might he think about a move to Toronto… and the statues to be molded in his likeness should he guide the locals to the Promised Land. And, only then would Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment land, by far, the best candidate to replace Kyle Dubas.