June 24th was a great day in Toronto. Almost as great as April 30th, which gets the edge due to the additional layer of suspense, if nothing else. Fans got to see the Leafs select Auston Matthews, perhaps the best prospect the team has ever had, with a rarely-possessed first overall pick in the draft. He debuted the new Leafs uniform and seemed happy as heck to be here. He’s been on the ice ever since, and now the 18-year-old is absolutely wrecking his future teammates at development camp.
But he’s done all of this without a contract. In fact, we’re now at the two-week mark of what should’ve been an extremely simple negotiation process.
|1||Auston Matthews||TOR||To Be Determined|
|2||Patrik Laine||WPG||July 3rd (3.575)|
|3||Pierre-Luc Dubois||CLB||June 29th (3.425)|
|4||Jesse Puljujarvi||EDM||To Be Determined|
|5||Olli Juolevi||VAN||To Be Determined|
|6||Matthew Tkachuk||CGY||July 7th (1.775)|
|7||Clayton Keller||ARI||Heading to NCAA|
|8||Alexander Nylander||BUF||To be Determined|
|9||Mikhail Sergachev||MTL||July 1st 2016 (1.775)|
|10||Tyson Jost||COL||Heading to NCAA|
Friend of the blog and Sportsnet insider Chris Johnston wrote a very informative piece a few days ago, explaining the reason why there’s been such a holdup. Every single first overall pick in the Salary Cap Era (and, if we’re being technical, Alexander Ovechkin before that), has received a combination of maximum rookie salary, the highest upfront signing bonus, and the potential to max out Schedule A and B performance bonuses, designed only for entry-level players.
Both Schedule A and B bonuses are given based on individual success, but the former’s lie in raw numbers while the latter tends to be based on things such as trophy voting, nominations for end-of-year-all star games, or finishing in the top 5-10 in the league for a specific statistic. Perhaps the most famous example of this came in April of 2013, when a Taylor Hall pass to Justin Schultz cost the Edmonton Oilers approximately $4 million. Hall squeaked into the top ten in assists, Schultz ended up 10th in goals by a defenceman, and both maxed out their Schedule B bonuses as a result.
Lou Lamoriello is distinctly anti-performance bonuses. Straight up doesn’t believe in them. He won a game of chicken against Adam Larsson a few years back, waiting out the 4th overall pick for three weeks before convincing him to sign at $925,000 a year with no bonuses. Mitch Marner was offered his $850,000 in potential schedule A bonuses last year, but that’s because the offer was made before Lamoriello showed up, leaving him to make an “exception” by not pulling out of it.
It’s another one of Lou’s old-timey, classic rules for how he operates his hockey teams. To him, not having the bonuses ensures that the player plays for the team, and not themselves. That’s all well and good, but they should realistically be thrown out of the window for a first overall pick.
For starters, the precedent has already been sent. Ovechkin got a max deal. Crosby got a max deal. Erik Johnson, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad, and Connor McDavid all got max deals. Why? Because they’re desirable players who made it the top of their draft class through ability and work ethic, and they’re almost assuredly going to give you results right away. Let’s look at the first three years of the first overall picks in the fancy stat era, for example:
Role/P60/CRel in three columns to represent each year of ELC. Stats from Hockey-Reference, Adjusted Cap Hit from Great Apes..
Other than Stamkos, who was misused by a horribly miscast coach in Barry Melrose, and Nail Yakupov, who might be the only thing close to a “bust” in recent draft history, every single one of these players were immediately used in top six (or in Ekblad’s case, first pairing) roles and produced at an above average rate while mostly driving team possession.
Considering what $3.8 million buys you these days, most of these guys were worth market value or more from the start, even if they hit all of their Schedule A’s and B’s. By the time they all got to their third year, they were all among the league’s top stars, and got paid like it too (again, with Yakupov being a sad exception). I don’t even want to know what Connor McDavid is going to make two offseasons from now.
The average forward on this list was a bit over a two points per 60 minutes and had a +2.2 Corsi For % Relative to his teammates. Not just that, they were still in their early twenties with room to grow. Realistically, if the third year of Matthews is even average by these standards, he’s still going to be better than any of this year’s big UFA’s were in their contract year.
Besides, if Auston Matthews plays like a $3.8 million player (Darren Helm, Andrew Shaw, Cody Eakin, Anders Lee, David Desharnais, etc), he sure as heck isn’t hitting too many Schedule A and B bonuses. The only way for the Leafs to need to pay him that much is if he plays like a player worth drastically more, so how great of a look is it to rob a player of his potential ability to look slightly less underpaid?
Some might say that they still admire Lou’s tenacity in trying to make the contract happen without the bonuses. It’ll save the Leafs some money in the next couple of years, they’ll say. But if the Leafs are suddenly so concerned about penny pinching, where were they when they spent $2.5 million a year on a fourth liner and $2.2 million on a defenceman likely to be a frequent healthy scratch? Why would you risk frustrating your best, youngest player over dollars that he won’t get if he doesn’t deserve it?
If you’re going to hold onto the personal line about keeping players focused on the team rather than the bonuses, how much faith does that show in your flagship, premiere asset to be unselfish? If you’re genuinely just trying to save the cap space, how much money do you realistically think you can spend once over $20 million comes off the book next year?
It just seems like such a weird thing to fuss over, in risk of jeopardizing your relationship with the player, or at least his agent. An ELC that still pays him less than Tyler Bozak makes even if he plays as well as Mats Sundin in his prime isn’t the end of the world, and it’s better to give them what they want now in a pocket of cap transition than it is to get nailed for revenge on the second deal, after Matthews is most likely to have had a strong season under his belt.
Ultimately, it just seems like a silly thing. There’s no need to even remotely risk frustrating your player and/or his agents while he’s still a teenager because you felt that pulling $8 million over three years from under his nose made sense. Give him every opportunity to cash out that he can get, and if he gets there? Perfect. The Leafs are a better team for it. If he doesn’t? Much ado about nothing.
The team really should’ve had this done a few days ago, at least. Max the base, give the bonuses, kill the media speculation and get on with the show.