Another report has surfaced suggesting — this time more directly — that Lou Lamoriello’s anti-bonus policy is stalling contract negotiations between the Maple Leafs and 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews.

As it pertains to entry-level performance bonuses, Lamoriello’s past position is well known thanks to this quote courtesy of Tom Gulitti after Adam Larsson (a fourth overall selection) signed a bonus-free ELC for Lou’s Devils in 2011:

We do not have any individual bonuses in any player’s contract and never had it including our picks that we’ve drafted over the years. This was established after a couple of years that I came (to New Jersey). I saw something that in my mind is not team-first philosophy when players have bonuses that if they score goals, they get more money, or if they get more ice time than another player, they get more money.

I am not one who is a believer in the rookie bonuses that is in the National Hockey League CBA — the A, Bs and Cs as they’re called. Yet, everyone in the league that are drafted certainly in the top areas seem to get them. Nobody (with the Devils) has not gotten them and our conversations have been that this would not be something that’s advantagous for us to do and the reason is because every player in our locker room that we have drafted have bought into that philosphy and nobody worries about individual things and only the team and it’s a commitment that’s made. Getting a young player who his peers who have been drafted below him and above him, for him to understand and agree to that — and also his representation — this young man is as mature as he can get at his age.

The assumption, therefore, has been that Matthews receiving his maxed out Schedule B bonuses — like the first overall picks before him — could be a sticking point with Lamoriello. To date, articles written on the subject appear to have cited league sources speculating on the situation from afar.

While idle speculation comes naturally in a market like Toronto, the paranoia about Matthews’ ELC is at least a little understandable. We know Lamoriello’s role in Toronto, in part (and in addition to the relationships, league office connections, general operational experience he brings to the table), is to set the tone for the organization in terms of building a culture of accountability and a team-first mentality. Lamoriello can’t finish an interview without mentioning self-sacrifice for the good of the team or the importance of the logo on the front over the name on the back (his teams would probably follow the nameless jersey template of the New York Yankees if Lou had his druthers). Army haircuts matter to Lou, and so do sweater numbers at development/training camp. On these things, like the ELC bonus issue, he carries a reputation as uncompromising from his days in New Jersey.

I think what I have to do is take a step back, and just watch and listen and learn on the job, so to speak. You never make changes for the sake of changing. You see what’s working. The one thing that fundamentally change with the people that really have a voice, from the conversations I’ve had with them and Brendan, is the word accountability. I think that’s where it’s all going to start. Everything else is an extension of that. Whatever the little nuance is, whether it’s how you practice, how you travel, how you do everything within the game. And then all of that will evolve. But I think the biggest and most important word that will come is accountability.
– Lou Lamoriello, July 23, 2015

The first question in need of answering here is whether having Auston Matthews unsigned as of July 20th is even an indication that there could be a lack of progress in the ongoing ELC negotiation.

Simply looking at Leafs‘ recent first round picks would suggest it’s not abnormal, with the earliest signing relative to the draft being fifth overall pick Mitch Marner last July 28th:

PlayerDate Signed
Mitch MarnerJuly 28
William NylanderAugust 18
Frederik GauthierNovember 27
Morgan RiellyAugust 3rd

The two top-five picks on the list (Marner, Rielly) weren’t signed until the end of July/early August. Of course, those picks were pre-Lou, and it’s true that first overall selections tend to get locked up earlier than players drafted later in the first round. But how about by July 20th? Recent history suggests first overall selections are sometimes inked by now, and sometimes not:

PlayerDate Signed
Connor McDavid July 3rd
Aaron EkbladSeptember 3rd
Nathan MacKinnon July 9th
Nail YakupovJuly 23rd
RNHJuly 2nd
Taylor HallJuly 5th
John TavaresJuly 15th
Steven StamkosJuly 30th
Patrick KaneJuly 25th

2014 first overall selection Aaron Ekblad signed on the dotted line just a few weeks before training camp opened. Evidently, there were no hard feelings two years later — he just signed an eight-year extension a year in advance of his entry-level contract expiring. [It also seems worth noting that four of the earliest contract signed above were handed out by the Edmonton Oilers.]

If the fact that the ELC isn’t done yet isn’t the issue, it is whether or not the contract will get done without the alleged hand-wringing harbouring some ill-will within Matthews’ camp moving forward.

I was looking for a GM that maybe wasn’t interested in a 4-5-6 year deal. I was also looking for somebody with some NHL experience that could complement the group that I had assembled.
– Brendan Shanahan, July 26, 2015

The first point worth mentioning is that Lamoriello ostensibly did not come to Toronto to make the organization his own for the foreseeable future. By all descriptions, he came to Toronto (on a short-term contract) because he was serving in a fringe/reduced role in New Jersey, was sold on Brendan Shanahan’s vision, and felt/feels he still has something more to bring to the table before he bows out of the game. He certainly appeared to understand that structure and some strong personalities were already in place in the Leaf front office, and that he was hired to — in Shanny’s words — complement the existing group.

I report to Brendan. Brendan is in the position he’s in. I respect that. I have no problem with that. I feel very comfortable in my own skin.
– Lou Lamoriello, July 26, 2015

On the decision-making process, Shanahan has repeatedly described a collaborative group dynamic in which each person beneath him has a vote:

As Lou mentioned today, you can have the greatest, toughest, biggest persona in the world, but we all have bosses and all have to consult with people. Nobody that I know in this business picks up the phone in the middle of the night and makes a trade all by himself without consulting with others in the organization, his boss – whether it’s a President or an owner. I don’t hire Lou Lamoriello without consulting with the MLSE board. I don’t hire Mike Babcock without consulting with people as well, or consulting with some of the people I have around me. I don’t know how other people are going to imagine things are going to go, but I spelled it out and I can’t be more consistent and more clear about how I think this organization can be successful. Lou bought into that. He will certainly be a leader. I’m asking any General Manager to be a leader. He will make decisions, but he will make them with us. He will have a very strong presence. It’s not unlike when Mark Hunter comes to me and says, “I want to draft his player.” I just simply say, “tell me why.” If he gives me a good reason, I say, “great, let’s draft him,” because that’s his expertise and not mine. If Kyle Dubas says, “I want to sign this player,” and we all sit around and we get Brandon Pridham in there, and if it fits in the cap and makes sense, we say, “tell us why” and we have a debate. I think people undersell Lou’s history in New Jersey of consulting with people. Name the last person that quit working for Lou in New Jersey. He runs a good ship and a tight ship, but he’s a very loyal person and people have worked for him for many, many years. If he had shut them out, they wouldn’t have stayed.
– Brendan Shanahan, July 23, 2015

There’s also a more recent quote worth noting here from Shanahan (emphasis is mine):

They should not be worried at all. I’d like to think — we haven’t been here a long time — but I can promise our fans that our management group didn’t get stupid in two weeks. We will take care of it. We understand what we have in Auston Matthews. Auston Matthews will be there in camp and we’re excited to have him. It will all get taken care of. We are not a group that likes to give a heads up as to what we’re doing and what we’re thinking. I’m sure there will be people wondering about it the day it ends up getting announced. I would just say that people can trust this group. Lou Lamoriello has been at this a long time. One thing he said when he came here – Lou, Mike, myself, we all met – was “this is not New Jersey, this is not Detroit… this is Toronto.” So, it will get done. I’m fully confident that Lou will have that done and people don’t have to worry.
– Brendan Shanahan, July 7, 2016

Lou Lamoriello himself has also recently admitted there are some realities about the modern game that he doesn’t exactly embrace but is forced to accept (this about July 1 spending):

I think that everything that happens these days is too much money. I don’t see many contracts that were signed that I would say were not “too much money.” I’ve said this year in and year out. But when you feel there is a need, and there is a short supply, if you can get, in your mind, the best player available for that [need], you have to make that decision.
– Lou Lamoriello, July 1, 2016

Now, this part of it ultimately comes down to whether you take all of these public statements by the front office at face value when the ‘play-nice’ idea may not be playing out in practice behind the scenes. Arguably, though — even if you believe Lou’s stance here is unyielding and that he’s willing to go to the 11th hour with this negotiation (doubtful) — it seems unlikely that MLSE ownership is going to stand by while the temporarily-present Lamoriello goes rogue nickel and dime’ing the franchise’s prize possession — its face for the next decade — out of principle following a concerted, expensive tanking effort last season. [Factoring in the Nathan Horton cash, the salary retention and buyout money, all the salary the Leafs took on in the form of bad contracts in order to improve their trade returns (draft picks), and all the off-ice investments the organization has made under the new management regime — it’s fair to state that Rogers and Bell just bankrolled one of the league’s highest payrolls while their team finished at its lowest since 1985. TV audience numbers were down significantly, and the ACC showed clear signs of its first ever notable attendance drop.]

Lamoriello has two years remaining on his three-year contract with the team, and while it’s not known if there’s an option at the end of his deal, that would mean that Auston Matthews will still be playing out his entry-level contract by the time a 75-year-old Lou sails off into the sunset. Meaning, the current GM likely won’t be around for the next round of contract negotiations with Matthews (assuming they start in the summer of 2018). Ownership and the President (Shanahan) won’t want to enter that negotiation on the wrong foot, or go into such an important second contract negotiation knowing they need to make Matthews whole.

It would be surprising to me if Lou Lamoriello doesn’t practice what he preaches by being a “team player” on this one. After all, in the words of Brendan Shanahan, this is not New Jersey.

All quotes in this article, unless otherwise specified, were transcribed by Maple Leafs Hot Stove