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Friedman: Coyotes believed to have eyed Auston Matthews offer sheet

Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on during an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena on October 2, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The Arizona Coyotes’ connection to local product and Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews has been largely speculative, but a tidbit from NHL reporter Elliotte Friedman suggests something may have been in the works last year.

The Sportsnet insider joined Barstool Sports’ Spittin’ Chiclets podcast (warning: explicit language) on Monday and said that he believes it was the Coyotes’ intention to pry Matthews away from Toronto via the offer sheet process.

“The Toronto Maple Leafs 100% believed that if Auston Matthews got to July 1 last year, Arizona was going to offer-sheet him seven years, the max,” Friedman said. “And I’ve looked at it, and people around the league have told me they believe that to be the case.

“Nobody has said to me that’s false. I think the Leafs believed it, I think the Coyotes were going to do it and I think the league knew it. So the attitude is moving.”

Offer sheets are a means by which teams can sign restricted free agents (RFAs) from other clubs, though Toronto would’ve had the opportunity to match an offer and keep Matthews. If they had not matched such an offer, the offering team would have to provide hefty compensation to the Leafs. For the salary that Matthews now has ($11.6 million cap hit), the Coyotes would’ve owed Toronto four first-round picks.

Instead, Matthews re-upped with the Maple Leafs before hitting RFA status on July 1.

Offer sheets are quite rare, and a successful one even more so. Last offseason, the Montreal Canadiens attempted to sign away Sebastian Aho from the Carolina Hurricanes, but the Canes matched the offer and retained Aho for an $8.454 million cap hit. Carolina even trolled the French-Canadian team that day:

Of course, if Arizona had successfully landed Matthews, it would’ve served monumental importance to the Coyotes.

Above all else, Matthews is an elite player. He went first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft (the Coyotes got Clayton Keller seventh overall and Jakob Chychrun 16th overall in that draft) and has since put up huge numbers in the NHL every season.

Matthews scored four goals in his NHL debut and had 40 goals his rookie year, winning 99.46% of the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) voting and scoring four more goals in six playoff games that same year. He since has scored no fewer than 34 goals in any season and has 157 goals with 284 points in 281 games played.

His 46 goals were third in the league this season entering Tuesday as he trails only Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Boston’s David Pastrnak, who each have 48.

Matthews’ elite goal-scoring prowess combined with his proficiency at a premium position (center) both would’ve come in handy for a Coyotes team that now finds itself on the outside looking into the playoff race with 12 games to go. He also could’ve added off-ice value as a face-of-the-franchise player whose roots are just over in Scottsdale.

In the absence of Matthews, the Coyotes traded for Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall with mixed and, in the case of Kessel, often underwhelming results. Friedman spoke on that subject as well, discussing the teams whose need to get into the playoffs can supersede the longer-term goal of winning of a championship.

“People made fun of Arizona for making the Taylor Hall trade this year,” Friedman said. “They haven’t been in the playoffs since 2012. At some point in time, you have to say there’s a reward for being our fan.”

The Coyotes might not even get that far, but the overarching point is that general manager John Chayka has shown a willingness to take risks in order to improve the team. But getting Matthews in the fold wasn’t meant to be — at least for now.

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