Although the Panthers were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by the Islanders, fans were able to catch a glimpse of the future as Mike Matheson was among the several players making their postseason debuts during the series. The 22-year old blue-liner was one of the many bright spots for the Panthers as he turned in several impressive performances considering the high-pressure circumstances.
The Panthers drafted Mike Matheson with the 23rd pick in the 2012 Draft which came right after the team made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. At the time, the Panthers’ defensive depth was fairly shallow and Matheson immediately became one of the top prospects in the organization, both at the blue-line and overall. He then went on to attend Boston College where he played for the Eagles for 3 seasons and also spent some time with fellow Panthers prospect Ian McCoshen before signing his entry-level contract at the end of the 2014-15 season.
The hype grew as Matheson played his first handful of professional games in the AHL with the Panthers’ former AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage as they attempted to make a playoff run and he would also tally his first 2 assists. This season was Matheson’s first full campaign in the AHL and he performed admirably for the Portland Pirates, earning him a call-up in late-February to replace an injured Erik Gudbranson.
Despite not tallying any points, his NHL debut against the Winnipeg Jets on February 20th was a success as he put his smooth skating and puck-handling skills on full display at the BB&T Center. For example, just as Matheson reaches the blue-line in the clip above, he’s surrounded by 3 defenders, and since he’s pretty much all alone, he smartly just puts a wrist shot towards the goaltender and continues on his path to the net with the hopes of there being a rebound.
Matheson played in one more game before being shipped back to the Pirates where he finished the regular season with a plus-minus rating of +14, good for second on the team among defensemen, while tallying 8 goals and 12 assists in 54 games. Matheson played primarily on the team’s 1st and 2nd pairing with Brent Regner who the Panthers signed to a contract in the offseason.
Reports suggested that he still needed to work on his defensive game before he’d be able to make the jump to the NHL, however he hardly looked out of place after being recalled on April 8th to replace an injured Steven Kampfer. In his first couple of games, Matheson was on the third pairing with Alex Petrovic before being moved to the top pairing with 20-year old Aaron Ekblad which ended up being a match made in heaven.
“They were terrific,” said Panthers GM Dale Tallon when asked about the young defensive pairing.
“I love that kid, he’s awesome,” said Ekblad about Matheson. “He’s a great player. I don’t even know why I said kid, he’s older than me.”
Matheson also drew the attention of his teammates who were thoroughly impressed with his ability to play difficult minutes down the stretch and into the playoffs. He ended up playing more playoff games (5) than regular season games (3) to start his NHL career.
“That’s something to come in like that,” said Brian Campbell. “To come in and play calm, cool, and collected…he’s got a bright future.”
“I’ll tell you what, he really impressed me,” said Roberto Luongo. “I thought he was fantastic, to step in like that and play some big minutes right off the hop…he was solid. I’m sure he’ll be part of our group next year. I was really impressed by what he was able to accomplish under the circumstances.”
Matheson really emerged as a reliable defenseman as the series went on and began to prove why he was worthy of his draft position. As we’ll see later, Matheson’s skating ability make him both an offensive and defensive threat while also helping drive possession for his team.
Above, we can see a very simple play. The entire neutral zone is there for the taking while Barkov, Huberdeau, and Jagr are waiting at the offensive zone blue line, so Matheson speeds in and gets the puck in deep. He also knows that he has the best chance at retrieving the puck, so he continues after it and is able to pass it back to Huberdeau to start a cycle. He could’ve easily peeled back and waited for his defensive partner to get on the ice before attempting a stretch pass which could’ve been tipped into the zone by one of the forwards at the blue line, however we’ve seen with other players like Trocheck that speed has a way of opening up seams in the defense, and that’s exactly what Matheson was able to do. Now the puck is in the zone and the forwards – and defensemen – are able to begin cycling and getting pucks on net.
In this play above, we see a similar play, except this time it’s part of the transition game rather than starting a breakout. Once again, Matheson’s speed opens up some seams which allow him to gain the offensive zone (albeit rather easily since there were only 3 Islanders back). A defenseman without the skating ability of Matheson probably would’ve given the puck off to Barkov on the right-wing side, but again he’s able to get the puck in deep and continue after it on the forecheck while splitting two Islanders.
Matheson is also an active participant in the offensive attack aside from merely moving the puck up the ice and into the offensive zone. He doesn’t hang back on the blue line but rather opens himself up for opportunities to get a shot on net as seen above. Jokinen sends him the puck on a silver platter, so he winds up and delivers a solid one-timer to Thomas Greiss, one that he had some trouble holding on to.
His offensive abilities aren’t only put to use when the Panthers have control of the offensive zone either. In this play, Derek MacKenzie gets a solid scoring opportunity, but when the puck comes free and the two Islanders chasing MacKenzie are way out of it in the corner, Matheson is able to sneak in behind two back-checkers and redirect a perfect pass from Logan Shaw towards Greiss. Matheson won’t jump up in the play if it’s too risky as he naturally thinks defense-first as a defenseman, but his skating ability and offensive instincts make it possible for him to get involved in plays like these when the time and opportunity are right.
Defensively, Matheson is just as solid. In this play above, he keeps a watchful eye on Josh Bailey as he skates up the right wing and maintains a pretty good-sized gap between himself and the Islander forward. Just as Bailey attempts to cut in towards the net, Matheson executes a perfect poke check to knock the puck away from him and towards the boards therefore negating the scoring opportunity. This is another simple play, but in the end, it’s one that prevents a shot attempt and then a possible rebound. Overall, his defensive coverage has been very good, and even looking back at game footage, it’s tough to find many moments, if at all, where Matheson is out of position or making a play that he shouldn’t be. His gaps are good and his skating allows him to get back into position should he choose to push the envelope a bit.
In the clip above, Matheson executes a move that’s not only very tricky but also very good if done right. Once he receives the puck from the corner, Matheson fakes quickly to the right then stops and shifts the puck to his backhand. Watching Kulemin, he’s led to believe that Matheson will continue towards the right corner, but he doesn’t and he’s forced to make a sharp turn to avoid the net and get to the Panthers’ defenseman. With two Islanders skating towards him, Matheson calmly floats a backhander towards the two Panthers forwards on the right side and the puck is out of danger.
That wasn’t the first time Matheson made a move to get the puck out of the defensive zone as he did it earlier in the series in the above clip. Not only does he win the battle with Czikas by poking the puck away from him in the corner, but he makes a really quick toe-drag move to allude Matt Martin and send him into the boards. Matheson is then able to get the puck up the ice and out of the zone. Again, it’s a risky play, but it’s something that he’s capable of executing with his puck-handling abilities and hockey sense.
When we look at the advanced stats for Matheson on his own – as well as the stats of his pairings – and connect them with the clips above, the numbers make sense. Individually, Matheson’s Corsi For percentage at 5v5 (score & venue-adjusted) is at 54.86% according to Corsica.hockey. Anything over 50% is very good, and although it’s only an 8-game sample, his skill set is one that’s very, very similar to that of Brian Campbell who we know has always been a solid performer possession-wise. He’s been a positive possession performer in all but two games, so when taking that in to account in addition to the eye test, it’s only fair to assume (as of now) that he’ll generally do the same in the future.
“He reminds me of [Campbell] a lot with how confident he is with the puck, making plays, and not worrying about expectations,” said Ekblad.
“He looks a lot like [Brian] Campbell to me,” said head coach Gerard Gallant after a late-September preseason game.
In the playoffs amongst pairings that played together for at least 50 minutes, that of Ekblad and Matheson ranked 3rd in the entire league with a Corsi For percentage of 60.51%, so the numbers show that it has the makings of a very good combo for the Panthers next season and beyond.
Mike Matheson has been touted as the Panthers’ top prospect for years and as a result of some injuries on the big league roster, he was able to give everyone a glimpse of what he has to offer for many seasons to come. The Panthers’ defensive core during the playoffs (Ekblad/Matheson, Kulikov/Gudbranson, and Campbell/Petrovic) could very well be what they use going into next season, especially since Willie Mitchell likely won’t return and if Brian Campbell is signed to a new contract. The future is bright for the Panthers on the blue line, and management is only starting to see the fruits of their labor and patience.