NHL - US Sports: What does the long-term future hold for Auston Matthews?
Several star players have made jaw-dropping moves since the recent season ended and while it's common sense to think Auston Matthews will renew his soon-to-be-expiring contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, there's certainly no guarantee.
If this off-season has taught us anything it's to expect the unexpected in the NHL.
Face of the franchise
The Leafs drafted Matthews with the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, and in over six seasons with the franchise he has already put his name into the conversation as the best player in their history.
In 407 regular season games, the dynamic 24-year-old has scored a sensational 259 goals, 198 assists for 457 points.
Matthews has led the NHL for goals in each of the past two seasons, and last year scored 60 goals in 73 games, the most by a Maple Leaf in a single season and was named the Hart Trophy winner as the league's most valuable player.
Where many have wilted in the spotlight of Toronto, the American centre has thrived and so it's difficult to see him seeking pastures new, particularly when signs point to him becoming the highest-paid NHL player ever.
Leafs planning to commit to star
Since Matthews signed his current five-year, $11.64million deal, the Leafs have only signed three players beyond the spring of 2024 - Mitch Marner, Morgan Reily and the recently-acquired Calle Jarnkrok.
That leaves them with full flexibility to ensure they can get their star tied down to a long-term contract anywhere up to the highest limit allowed by the collective bargaining agreement, which at the current $82.5-million cap sits at $16.5million, or one-fifth of the team's total cap limit.
Edmonton Oilers' Captain Connor McDavid is currently the highest paid in the NHL earning $12.5 million per year on a contract which runs until 2026.
Delivering the Cup to Toronto
Despite his regular season success with the Leafs, including last season where they amassed the most wins (54) and points (115) in their history, Matthews is yet to enjoy a deep post-season run with the Original Six franchise.
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In fact, Matthews and the Leafs haven't yet won a playoff series with their last progression past the first round coming in 2004.
Matthews has 33 points (17 goals, 16 assists) in 39 post-season appearances, and this season helped Toronto take back-to-back champions Tampa Bay Lightning to a Game 7 which they narrowly lost 2-1.
Despite not being a Canadian, Matthews has totally bought into Toronto and will know the significance that success in the playoffs would mean.
The Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967, a 54-year drought which is longest of all teams in the league, and they are 9.00 to win it in 2023.
The legend status such success would bring is sure to motivate Matthews and be an incentive him to commit his future to the team who after many years of hurt don't feel they are too far away.
Home comforts an attraction?
Matthews was born in San Ramon, California, just outside of San Francisco, before his family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona where he was raised.
So, a move to the Coyotes might be attractive, but the chances are very slim given that they will be based in a tiny 5,000 seat arena at Arizona university for at least the next three years.
The Coyotes are in negotiations to build a new $1.7billion arena, and by 2024 could have a first-round star like Connor Bedard on side, but if Matthews wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup any time soon, Arizona isn't the place for him to be.
Instead, it could be a move to Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose or Vegas - all closer to home than Toronto.
All of those offer appeal, including the chance to watch his favourite baseball team, the LA Dodgers, and spend more time with his close friend and pop superstar, Justin Bieber, who spends most of his time in LA, but is a Leafs fan.
Leafs must act fast
If the Leafs can learn anything from this off-season, it's to not wait on a deal for Matthews.
The Calgary Flames did that with Johnny Gaudreau and, after eight years of being their franchise player, he upped and left to be closer to his home, signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are much further away currently from winning the Stanley Cup than the Flames.
But sometimes that doesn't matter, nor does money. So, the Leafs need to act in July 2023 when they may tender an offer and convince Matthews that Toronto is the place for him to commit his future.
If they end up losing him, long-awaited glory in the Stanley Cup is going to prove much more difficult.