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6 Potential Free

Jul 26, 2023Jul 26, 2023

Disappointment has gone hand in hand with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the past 56 years, and now that they've been bounced from the Eastern Conference second round by the Florida Panthers in five games, sadness reigns yet again.

The difference between this year's failure and previous ones is that major consequences are likely on the way for falling short of winning the Stanley Cup. The futures of general manager Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe are up in the air, and the disappearance of offense from the Leafs' biggest stars could mean someone is on the way out via trade.

There's something else much more ominous in the offing, however. At the end of next season, Auston Matthews can become an unrestricted free agent.

Matthews has helped Toronto make the playoffs each season since he's entered the league. In six of those seven seasons, it did not get out of the first round. This season...well, it goes to show that even after getting that weight off its back, not everything is golden.

The drama and scrutiny that comes with playing for Toronto might be enough for anyone to say they'd rather play elsewhere, and that's why we picked six possible future teams for Matthews if he hits free agency July 1, 2024.

Let's make the case for him to stay in Toronto before hitting anything else.

The Leafs getting bounced unceremoniously by the Panthers in the second round guarantees there will be changes in Toronto. It will likely start at the top with the GM and the coach, but the roster will need to be addressed. Of the quartet of star forwards who haven't performed well recently (Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander), Matthews is the least likely to be traded apart from Tavares because of his age and his contract (32 years old with two years left on his deal with an $11 million cap hit).

If there was one player you'd think would be guaranteed to have a contract extension done as soon as humanly possible, it's Matthews. That said, when the Maple Leafs signed Matthews to his five-year, $58 million-plus contract extension in February 2019, it was risky because it walked him right to unrestricted free agency at the end. It was a risk they felt was worth taking because of what was built in Toronto, and they appeared headed for massive success. After all, who would leave that situation?

Matthews knows this well enough and, more importantly, the Leafs know it, too. That is why they'll pony up a massive contract extension to keep him in The Six and figure out what they need to surround him with to get the Leafs to the Stanley Cup.

You knew this was coming. We all did, didn't we?

For the longest time, the Coyotes have been the butt of jokes across the NHL. From ownership changing constantly to the arena messes to taking on virtually any big contract from a team looking to unload one, it's been a never-ending source of entertainment for anyone who loves grabbing the low-hanging fruit of hockey humor.

But the laughing stops once they bring home Scottsdale, Arizona's own Auston Matthews.

No market in the NHL needs a marquee player more than Arizona. They're looking to build a sparkling new arena in Tempe so they can move out of their college digs at Arizona State, and building a community of fans takes time. The Coyotes have gone from playing in Phoenix proper to Glendale to Tempe, nomads in their own region. Bringing Matthews home to play alongside the oodles of young players they have present or on the way (Clayton Keller, Matias Maccelli, Logan Cooley, Dylan Guenther, Conor Geekie, Maveric Lamoureux) not only creates a great homecoming story for a market that's on the brink of becoming a haven for young talent but makes the Coyotes a team to be reckoned with.

Matthews returning to Arizona wouldn't just put the Coyotes into the national focus, but it would give them an absolute top player to bring their young prospects together. With all apologies to Paul Bissonnette, the Coyotes haven't had a major star player since Jeremy Roenick in the late 1990s, and Matthews would be even bigger and better than that.

When you take a look at Chicago's CapFriendly page and look ahead to the 2024-2025 season when Auston Matthews' new contract would begin, you'll see Chicago has only $15.9 million in salary commitments to Seth Jones and Conor Murphy, and money retained when they traded Jake McCabe to Toronto.

That's it. That's everything.

Now that they'll (presumably) select Connor Bedard with the No. 1 pick in June, they've got their future franchise player. You know what worked out well for Chicago before when they won three Stanley Cups? Having two franchise players with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Signing Auston Matthews to join Bedard makes so much sense given the Blackhawks, at least right now, have at least $70 million in available cap space to make it work (we know it won't be that much later on, relax).

Whoever signs Matthews is going to need a lot of money and a lot of cap space to make it work. In two years, Chicago may not be quite in a position to make a run at the Cup, but if Bedard is indeed the next in the line of players like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, it's not going to take long at all. Not only that, but Matthews wouldn't be the absolute No. 1 guy there with Bedard in place.

You can go from awful to historic in a flash with those two leading the way.

We all know how much the New York Rangers love having star players, and if Auston Matthews was available to be signed, owner James Dolan would be right up front to try to bring him to Manhattan.

The Rangers would want to move heaven and earth to add Matthews to their lineup, and that's a good thing because their salary-cap situation two years from now already looks fraught with a little over $65 million tied into 11 players. But if the goal is to bring in an elite superstar like Matthews, you do what you can to make it happen.

Matthews heading to the Big Apple would give the Rangers another elite talent to join Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad, and it would make him the focus of the Rangers' efforts to win the Stanley Cup, something they came up woefully short of this season and missed out on the chance last season losing in the Eastern Conference Final.

The Rangers don't fear spending money, and as an owner, Dolan loves to make a splash. If there was any kind of hangup, it would be about whether GM Chris Drury would want to pursue that avenue given they're still thinking Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière are going to break out and meet their potential at long last.

Then again, in another year, it might be more than abundantly clear what they've seen already is what they are and they'll be quickly in need of a solution.

The best part about having the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL is that anytime we're in need of a team that would be a fit for an available or soon-to-be available player, Vegas is always going to be in the mix whether they can do it or not. If Auston Matthews is out there on the open market, you know they'll try to find a way.

Vegas cares not for things like the salary cap or bonus overages or anything of the sort. They've treated the cap like it's a myth, and they've been able to make it work for them about as well as a team can. When 2024 rolls around, Vegas might have a decent amount of cap space to work with as they've got a bit over $63 million committed to 13 players for the 2024-2025 season. That potentially leaves a whole boatload of money to spend to woo Matthews to The Strip.

Aside from Vegas' win-at-all-costs mentality and need to have the best names to entertain the masses among the casinos, they've got the sort of lineup that would lend itself well to his talents. They've got one of his friends in Jack Eichel there already, and having a one-two punch down the middle with those two would give them a big advantage in the West and give them someone else to deal with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl within the division.

All the reasons are there for Vegas to make a run at Matthews, and there's all the reason in the world to believe they would if given the opportunity.

The Los Angeles Kings have been a rather remarkable story the past couple seasons. When they missed the playoffs for three straight seasons between 2018-19 and 2020-2021, it seemed like they were so far past their Cup-winning days that a rebuild would be imminent as their star players got older.

Then they went out and made the playoffs the past two seasons and gave the Edmonton Oilers all they could handle in the first round. Not bad for an aging team that was trying to reload and keep the dream alive. But when 2024-2025 comes around, they're going to have a lot of money coming off the cap.

Anze Kopitar, Viktor Arvidsson, Matt Roy, and Sean Walker's contracts are all up, and the Kings have nearly $48 million committed to eight players that season, meaning they'll have around $40 million available to spend against the cap.

With Kopitar's deal up with him turning 37 ahead of the 2024-25 campaign, a No. 1 center would be a priority for L.A. That player could come from within with Quinton Byfield, but that's not a sure thing just yet. Matthews is a sure thing right now, and seeing him join Kevin Fiala and Adrian Kempe with the Kings would allow them to once again be dynamic offensively.

Matthews joining Byfield to potentially be their one-two punch at center would be a lot of fun, and Philip Danault also at center would allow them to not have to worry about the position for some time.