Leafs/Auston Are All Talk, No Action

TORONTO (Aug. 21) — Logically, there are only two factors that would induce Auston Matthews to sign a National Hockey League contract extension before next July: a) he cannot fathom dressing for any other team but the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or, b) he is concerned over the possibility, albeit slim, of a career–threatening injury while playing out his option in the season ahead. Otherwise, there is no reasonable argument for Matthews to make a commitment before he tests unrestricted free agency at age 26, still two or three years shy of his biological prime.

Neither, apparently, are the Leafs in a particular rush to retain their top goal scorer.

More than three months have gone by since Matthews told reporters it was his “intention” to stay with the club that drafted him first overall in 2016. On the heels of another playoff disappointment, no one expected Auston to say “I hate it here and I can’t wait to leave.” Which isn’t likely the case… and doesn’t have to be in order for him to join a rival club for the 2024–25 season. For Matthews and his agent, Judd Moldaver, it is likely all about business right now. Almost never is an elite goal–scorer, prior to the age of 30, in such an envious posture — within ten months of having virtually the entire league at his disposal on the open market. Money should not be a determining factor; wherever Matthews signs, he’ll recoup between $12 and $15 million per season. Rather, the choice of NHL city and the length of a second contract will regulate his next move. To wit: it is almost certain that Moldaver and Matthews are seeking a bridge–type deal of three or four years at less–than maximum salary and cap encumbrance so that another enormous pay day arrives for the player when he enters his 30’s. The Leafs, having already conceded Matthews a short–term arrangement coming out of entry level (five years at $11.634 million per season on Feb. 5, 2019), aren’t likely anxious to capitulate yet again. Nor should they be for a player that has routinely withered in Stanley Cup competition. For both sides, this becomes a juggling act and a stare down that could easily extend through the entire 2023–24 NHL schedule, distraction or not. Time is hardly of the essence.

In the end, and as I’ve repeatedly written, I don’t think it particularly matters.

In fact, if I were Brendan Shanahan and Brad Treliving, there would be no compunction to submit to Moldaver’s demands. A “worst–case” scenario could, in fact, become a “best–case” scenario for the Maple Leafs: the player departing as a UFA next summer. Of course, there are only two choices right now — sign or walk — as the Maple Leafs surrendered, on July 1 of this year, the right to trade the final year of Matthews’ deal. The player and his agent are in full control with respect to inking a contract extension. But, the team still has abundant influence over the terms of a new deal. And, lots of remaining firepower with Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares.

Given the near–complete lack of playoff accomplishment, why would Shanahan and Treliving buckle under? Are the Leafs doomed without Auston Matthews? Should the club not at least consider the possibility of replacing him with another $13 million player? Or, perhaps with two serviceable components that appropriate such a salary and cap burden? In spite of a record, 60–goal regular season, Matthews hasn’t proven to be a big–game player. In fact, he’s been anything but. It is imperative, and long overdue, for the focus to shift — amid the Maple Leafs and their fans — from looking pretty in the 82–game playoff warm up to actually posing a Stanley Cup challenge.

All possibilities should therefore be on the table for the NHL team with the longest championship drought.

And, I believe that is the situation. Despite the hollow words from both sides — and that the Leafs have stubbornly dabbled on the periphery of the Core–4 — I contend that Shanahan and Treliving are being circumspect. It is, in fact, their obligation to seriously examine what has not occurred in the past seven playoff years. Offhandedly conceding to the demands of Moldaver and Matthews, in my view, would have already happened. Management relinquished a monumental chip by allowing the no–movement clause in Matthews’ contract to become functional at the start of July. Were I running the Leafs, and as mentioned on numerous occasions in this corner, I would have made every attempt to trade the final year of Auston’s pact and seek a new playoff direction. Perhaps Shanahan and Treliving considered that route and found only road blocks. NHL rivals aren’t oblivious to the lack of timely production from No. 34 in Stanley Cup toil. Assuming the final year of his $11.6 million contract, with no assurance beyond the coming season, wasn’t likely appealing. Once July 1 came around, the Leafs were unavoidably locked into that arrangement. There is no reason for the club to compound such a dilemma by capitulating to Moldaver.

All of this, of course, will be rendered immaterial if the Maple Leafs bow to their regular–season star and accord him a bridge contract. Again, I suspect that would have already taken place. Instead, it appears the club is negotiating smartly with Moldaver… and at least pondering the eventuality of life without Matthews beyond the upcoming campaign. Despite what you may think — and what you’ve been conditioned to think by myopic factions in the Toronto media — the concept of Matthews playing elsewhere is hardly a notion to fear.


In full, game day regalia, he looks more like a serial killer than a football player.

And, it’s an image he doesn’t mind — while on the field.

Outside the chalk lines, A.J. Ouellette is a typically soft–spoken athlete; the feature running back for the best team to this point of the 2023 Canadian Football League schedule. When shown by TSN cameras on the sideline, without his helmet, Ouellette is every person’s dark–alley nightmare. He would also be the perfect figure for a SummerSlam! show — thus the start, last week, of a professional wrestling career, which likely did not thrill those that pay his football salary. At the moment, however, it is all business for A.J. and the league–leading Toronto Argonauts: 7–and–1 heading into Friday night’s grudge match at BMO Field against the Calgary Stampeders.

Beneath this paragraph, there are two photographs of A.J. Ouellette. The first (top) was taken by yours truly outside the dressing room at BMO. The other (a TSN sideline image during last Sunday’s triumph over Ottawa) is Ouellette’s game look — an unruly hodgepodge of mullet–style hair; a thick, full beard and running eye make–up that would horrify and embarrass any woman. Perhaps not the equivalent of Alice Cooper or Gene Simmons, but close enough to resemble the rock icons of the 1970’s. “I like the football appearance it projects,” said the 27–year–old native of Covington, Ohio (30 miles northwest of Dayton). “I started with just some eye–black then smeared it across my face and it bled into my beard. When I sweat and the make–up runs, I look a whole lot different than the type of person I am away from the field. And, that suits me fine. I’m an aggressive runner who likes to ram into guys and break tackles. It doesn’t hurt that I look a little bit scary. We have a scary team this season.”

Scary, at least, until a roster–wide no show, Aug. 4, at Calgary, where the 2023 Boatmen absorbed their first (and only) loss of the schedule. The 20–7 final count was actually flattering for a club that had scored at a 36–point clip in its first six matches. But, the Argos rarely prevail at McMahon Stadium; even the best clubs in modern franchise history — the 1996 and 1997 editions quarterbacked by Doug Flutie — lost twice in southern Alberta. Players wearing the Toronto jersey this season should have no difficulty recalling that humiliation when the Stampeders arrive here. The Argos looked more familiar at home last Sunday with a 44–31 victory over the Ottawa Redblacks, rebounding from an early 10–0 deficit. Nearing the halfway mark of the CFL calendar, Toronto and Winnipeg (8–and–2 atop the West Division) are on a collision course for a second consecutive Grey Cup encounter (the Argos prevailed in an upset last November; the clubs meet for the only time this season, at Winnipeg, Sep. 29).

In a bygone era, on a much–lesser Argonaut team, Ouellette would already be among the most–popular athletes in Toronto. He is a human wrecking ball, rambling past and over–top rival defenders for 549 yards thus far on 99 carries (5.5 yards per touch). Few Argonaut runners in my years watching the team could escape opposing tacklers so adeptly. And, Ouellette’s time will come if the Argos continue to dominate the CFL into the traditional football months of Autumn, when the weather becomes cool and unforgiving. Especially, down by the lakeshore at the CNE, where casual fans often join the die–hards to inflate the turnstile count. It happened last year during an unanticipated march to the Grey Cup… and it will again for a team with loftier expectation. This is clearly the best Toronto aggregation since the Flutie era a generation ago. It is led by Chad Kelly, undoubtedly the best home–grown quarterback since Joe Theismann in 1971. The ’23 Argos are fun to watch and the rabid environment at BMO Field is unlike any you’ll experience at a Leafs, Raptors or Blue Jays game. “We don’t have the most fans in the city, but we definitely have the loudest,” offered Ouellette. “It’s a treat to play in our stadium. We’d love more people to show up and enjoy the atmosphere generated by a winning team. Just like they did last November.”

Sadly, media coverage of the Argonauts hasn’t mirrored the club’s sterling record. Only the Toronto Star has seen fit — with veteran reporter Mark Zwolinski — to follow the club in the lead–up to games… and to actually appear in the BMO Field press box. The Toronto Sun, long the beacon of football writing in our city, has completely thrown in the towel, posting Argo game stories written by Dan Ralph, the long–time CFL scribe for The Canadian Press wire service. It is nothing shy of a humiliation for the tabloid paper that a staff reporter (it used to be Frank Zicarelli) cannot venture down to the CNE to cover home games. Neither does the Globe and Mail assign such a figure. None of the local newspapers attend Argonaut road matches, which is understandable given that the Sun, for example, has suspended all sports travel. Rob Longley, the best baseball writer in the city, is reduced to covering Blue Jays away games off television. But, the Star and Sun routinely staff home encounters at Rogers Centre.

Not so for the Double Blue at BMO. Which is pathetic.

For those into the Argonauts and the CFL, the second half of the 2023 season brings much promise and enticement. Despite holding top spot in the East Division since the outset, the Argos are being challenged by the upstart Montreal Alouettes, winner of four consecutive games. Toronto (7–1) still leads Montreal (6–3) by two points, with a game in hand. The clubs will play consecutive matches after Labor Day — on Sep. 9 at BMO Field and Sep. 15 at Percival Molson Stadium. The Argos won the first head–to–head meeting, 35–27, in Montreal on July 14.

If among the innumerable “closet” fans of the Argos, you won’t regret making the effort to attend a game at the CNE. It is the most–enthralling pro sports environment in the city right now.

And, I promise you’ll marvel at the man with the running eye makeup.


5 comments on “Leafs/Auston Are All Talk, No Action

  1. Like you I’m at the Argo games at the BMO field and it’s the best atmosphere to watch sports in the city , just love it And to top it off we are ( Argos ) a winning team. That wins Championships. I’ve got a ring to prove it

  2. The Maple Leafs should take a page from a top notch organization like the Pittsburgh Steelers. When linebacker Melvin Ingram complained too loudly about his playing time he was quickly traded. Coach Mike Tomlin declared “We want volunteers, not hostages.”
    Quit begging. The lunatics don’t run the asylum!

  3. Why are we talking football in the middle of a hockey article?!!! Nevertheless, I agree with everything said about Matthews, his agent, the Leafs and the contract situation in this article.

  4. This is definitely a very special Argonauts team. It’s a shame that more Torontonians aren’t supporting the team.

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