Matthews addresses future contract, but won't make a habit out of doing so
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs opened training camp on Wednesday at the Ford Performance Centre.
Auston Matthews broke into a smile when the topic of his next contract was raised.
"I appreciate the question, but I am not going to be entertaining this question all year," the 25-year-old said. "I understand why you guys want to talk about it but, at the same time, there is nothing that can be done."
The reigning Hart Trophy winner has two years left on his current deal. He will be eligible to sign an extension next summer. And while Matthews isn't interested in a running dialogue about his future, the Arizona native did offer up some insight on how he's feeling.
"I think I have been pretty clear that I've loved my time here," Matthews said. "I really love playing in the city of Toronto. I consider it home now ... I have grown comfortable in my own skin here. It is not easy to do that at times, but I just think it is such a special place to play."
The Leafs have been laying the groundwork for a Matthews extension ever since he signed a five-year extension on Feb. 5, 2019.
"If you look at the way our contracts are structured, we have a massive amount of cap flexibility coming around that time when Auston, Mitch [Marner], William [Nylander] and John [Tavares] all expire," said general manager Kyle Dubas. "It is on us to build an environment where high-end players want to stay and be here because they know they can be pushed, reach their potential and have a chance to win."
Morgan Rielly and Calle Jarnkrok are the only Toronto players under contract beyond the 2024-25 season.
The Leafs haven't advanced in the playoffs since drafting Matthews first overall in 2016, but the relationship between the organization and the superstar sniper remains in good shape.
"If he had to make that decision today, I can tell you with a fair amount of confidence Auston Matthews would be signing an extension," TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun said on SportsCentre. "It's the vibe that you get from talking to people around him. He's really happy being a Toronto Maple Leaf. But the reality is he can't make that decision today and he's not making that decision in a vacuum. This season matters. And, yes, ultimately, whether this team finally wins a playoff series will absolutely factor into whether Auston Matthews signs an extension next summer."
For now, Matthews is just enjoying the ride in the centre of the hockey universe.
"There is a lot of history here and it is a big honour to go out every night and wear the Maple Leaf on my chest," he said. "It's something I definitely don't take for granted. I really appreciate it. It has felt like home for a while. It is just an awesome place to play."
Matthews has two years left on his five-year deal. Dubas has just one.
"We are an organization that preaches accountability," Dubas said in an opening statement before taking questions on Wednesday. "In my position, I don't view myself as any different. In fact, I think I have to be held the most accountable ... I have zero issue with being evaluated over the entire body of work here."
Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan discussed his situation late in the summer. Dubas insists he didn't expect an extension to be offered.
"I fully acknowledge we haven't gotten it done at the end of the season," the 36-year-old said. "I would much rather be evaluated on the full term anyway ... I know it is not going to be a distraction, because I won't let it be a distraction."
"He is confident in himself and confident in us as players and as a team," said Matthews. "That is what you want from your general manager — that belief. Clearly, he believes in our group, our core group, and the players we have around us, as well as the coaching staff. It is nice to have that so you can go out there, play and know you have his full support."
Dubas, like Matthews, said he wouldn't be taking questions about his contractual situation throughout the season.
"I will tell you, from talking to other front offices, that there are a lot of GMs who feel they would love to have this team and this roster right now, that they wouldn't change a whole lot, which is a way of saying they believe Kyle Dubas is a pretty good GM," said LeBrun. "But, I'm telling you right now, there's no question: if the Leafs can't find playoff success I believe there will be massive changes here and I believe Kyle Dubas knows that."
Restricted free agent Rasmus Sandin remains in Sweden.
Dubas refused to get into the state of negotiations, but was willing to answer when asked about the value of training camp for a young defenceman like the 22-year-old Sandin.
"This is pivotal development time," Dubas said. "I think it is very important. We certainly wish he was here. I do think it has massive value. We hope that he is here as soon as possible."
Nylander missed camp and the first two months of the 2018-19 season due to a contract stalemate. He trains with Sandin in the summer and was asked if he offered any advice.
"I said, 'You just do what you got to do.' He's got to be happy with his situation," Nylander said. "It's obviously a hard and weird position to be in. Like, everybody's getting going and all you want to do is be here. I know he feels the same way."
The start of training camp can be a pressure point in negotiations.
"You're kind of sitting there and you want to be there badly and want to try and figure something out," recalled Marner, who signed a new contract a couple days into training camp in 2019. "These are the days where usually it's a lot of phone calls back and forth."
Negotiations between the Leafs and Timothy Liljegren, another young defenceman, went more smoothy and yielded a two-year, $2.8-million deal early in the off-season.
"There's no question in my mind that the Leafs would've liked Sandin to sign a similar deal to what Timothy Liljegren signed," said LeBrun. "I think the response from [agent] Lewis Gross and the Sandin camp was a pretty flat no. Right now, they're sticking to their guns and we'll see where it goes."
Liljegren will be sidelined to start the season after undergoing hernia surgery on Friday.
"He will be out a minimum of six weeks," Dubas said. "We are looking at an early-to-mid November projected return if everything goes well ... It is just a cumulative thing that happened. It wasn't an acute situation where it happened."
The injury leaves Toronto with one righty incumbent, Justin Holl, on defence. Mark Giordano has considered the possibility of playing his off side.
"I've played a lot on the left in my career, but obviously we have to be, as players, open to playing either side with the way our team looks," the veteran said. "There's big benefits in the offensive zone, for sure, playing on your off side. When you drag the puck to the middle you're in a better shooting position. It's just little adjustments defensively, which shouldn't be too hard for guys. I've seen a lot of guys do it ... Righties or lefties should be able to handle the other side and get used to it."
Even without Sandin and Liljegren to start camp, Sheldon Keefe isn't worried about the defensive depth.
"We added both [Jordie] Benn and [Victor] Mete as two guys we felt very strongly could play in the NHL if needed," the coach pointed out. "Early on here, it is showing that those were valuable adds for us."
Keefe believes Carl Dahlstrom, who played three games with the Leafs last season, is another viable option along with Mac Hollowell.
The Leafs are also dealing with an injury up front as Pierre Engvall hurt his foot and ankle while training in Sweden.
"He will be re-evaluated the week of Oct. 3," Dubas said. "We are hopeful Pierre will be cleared at that time and able to get into the final group of exhibition games, but we have to do what is best for him long-term."
The Leafs will wrap up their pre-season schedule on Oct. 8. Toronto opens the regular season on Oct. 12.
After learning about the Engvall injury, the Leafs extended a pro tryout to Zach Aston-Reese. Dubas also sees a lot of in-house options.
"This is the first time going into the year where I look at our own internal guys," Dubas said. "If you are them today you feel you have a great chance, whether you are Nick Robertson — who I know gets a lot of bandwidth — but also the Bobby McManns, the Joey Andersons, the Pontus Holmbergs ... It is a great chance and opportunity for them to show that they can push and give it a go."
Robertson made his NHL debut in the 2020 playoff bubble, but has dealt with a series of injuries and produced just one goal and one assist in 16 subsequent games with the Leafs.
"I'm confident in myself that I am that calibre of player to play on the Leafs and we'll see how it goes," Robertson said last week.
The 5-foot-10 winger added strength during a summer of training beside brother Jason Robertson.
"I've gotten a little thicker in the legs and the upper body," Robertson said. "I did better on my bike test than I've ever done before."
Robertson started training camp last year on a line with Jason Spezza and Michael Amadio, who were both destined for fourth-line duty. He should have a more prominent position when the Leafs hit the ice for the first time on Thursday.
"He is going to get an opportunity," Keefe confirmed. "He is going to play with good players and get an opportunity to establish himself as a player that can contribute on offence."
Robertson scored 16 goals in 28 games with the Toronto Marlies last season.
Keefe plans on keeping his top line of Matthews, Marner and Michael Bunting together, but there is an opening on the second line with Tavares and Nylander.
"I look at it as a job that is available," he said. "Guys can compete for that. At different times, we separated John and Will. We will look to explore that as well and see what that looks like."
Look for Toronto's new goalies – Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov – to split starts in the first half of the season.
"That is a big [thing] for us: manage the workload for both guys and have them motivated and challenging one another," said Keefe. "Certainly, as the season wears on and you start to prepare to compete in the playoffs, we will look for one guy to start to separate."
Murray played just 20 games with the Ottawa Senators last season. Samsonov suited up in 44 with the Washington Capitals.
"The reality is that we need to get them both up and running," said Dubas. "It is going to be hard if one is going to be playing all the games and the other is sitting. With the way the schedule is at the beginning of the year, it kind of makes it easy to let it roll. With that said, it is going to be based on merit with how they play in exhibition and how they play to start the year. Nothing has been promised to either and nothing will be given to either. They will earn it."
Erik Kallgren opens the season as the No. 3 goalie on the depth chart. Joseph Woll, who also made his NHL debut with the Leafs last season, is still recovering from a shoulder surgery and will miss training camp.
The Leafs will skate in two groups on Thursday.