Newly acquired Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson is in Pittsburgh and one of the Penguins already on the practice rink in Cranberry Township. The September Penguins trade for Matheson became the offseason’s biggest gamble when they traded away the wildly popular and integral Patric Hornqvist for the former Florida Panthers defenseman.
Fans (and media) may be forgiven for being skeptical of the Penguins because the team is now without Hornqvist, who was figuratively the Penguins’ beating heart and energy source.
“Devastating” was a word privately used by multiple Penguins players after the trade.
The Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford attempted to save salary cap space by dealing away Hornqvist, but instead, the Penguins trade haul brought back the increasingly maligned 26-year-old defenseman, Mike Matheson.
“I thought he was untradeable,” an industry source said of Matheson and his $4.875 million salary for the next six years.
However, the Penguins and GM Jim Rutherford didn’t see it that way. As PHN began digging around to learn more about Matheson, who was the Florida Panthers’ first-round draft pick in 2012 (23rd overall), the Penguins connections emerged.
So too did scouting reports about his potential.
“He has all of the tools,” said former Baie-Comeau (QMJHL) head coach Jon Goyens, who coached him at the Triple-A level and still works with him in the offseason. “He’s a bright guy … He’s one of the best skaters in the league, not just defensemen.”
Goyens eventually took over the Baie-Comeau QMJHL program, where he coached current Penguins prospect Nathan Legare, as well. And the hockey coach is the start of Matheson’s gateway connection to the Pittsburgh Penguins because another player who skates with Goyens in the offseason is top Penguins defenseman Kris Letang.
Letang and Matheson work with Goyens as part of the offseason troop that skates on Montreal’s outskirts. And it’s in that relationship with Letang that Matheson’s career will have the additional and necessary support to return to the fast track he was on when the Florida Panthers lavished him with an eight-year, $39 million contract just days into his second NHL season.
“(After his rookie year), the Panthers organization loved him,” our industry source said at the time of the Penguins trade. “I mean, the organization and scouts thought he was better than (Aaron) Ekblad.”
Matheson left Boston College after 2014-15 and played five games for the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. The following year, he spent his full first pro season mostly in the AHL but played three NHL games in 2015-16. The Florida Panthers were sufficiently impressed to keep him around for the NHL playoffs, where Matheson became a pillar in the Florida Round One playoff loss to the New York Islanders. He was also a standout for Team USA in the World Championships, which followed.
Officially, 2016-17 was Matheson’s rookie year. The lightning-fast defenseman scored 17 points (7g, 10a) and earned 21 minutes of ice time per game under head coaches Gerard Gallant, then Tom Rowe. He also grabbed power play time on the talented Florida roster.
“He’s a student of the game. He doesn’t cheat the pro game, whatsoever,” Goyens said.
And that should be music to Mike Sullivan’s ears.
The knock against Matheson beginning in his college days was compounding mistakes. When things go wrong, Matheson tries too hard to overcome the adversity, and things get worse. The pebbles become boulders. Turnovers, mistakes, and doubt follow.
It sounds a bit like a young Kris Letang, doesn’t it?
It was after Matheson’s second year that things went sideways. Doubling Matheson’s NHL struggles over the past two seasons has been the revolving door behind Florida’s bench. Matheson has had four coaches in four NHL seasons. Gallant, Rowe, Bob Boughner, and Joel Quenneville.
Not all of those coaches are the warm and snuggly types, either. Matheson certainly wouldn’t be the first young player who didn’t vibe with current coach Joel Quenneville.
Matheson has been in the NHL for four full seasons, and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan will be his fifth head coach in those four years.
Confidence is a requirement of defensemen under pressure, and it can come and go.
One of Matheson’s skills that immediately stands out is his speed. Matheson isn’t just quick. He’s one of the fastest defensemen in the NHL.
And skating with Letang in the offseasons creates the potential mentorship to shepherd Matheson from the struggles. Letang, 33, has seen his share of struggles and risen above them.
“Going through those tough times, I think he’s become more resilient. He’s discovered his swagger,” Goyens believes. “…I think in the environment that Pittsburgh has, and I shared with Letang, it’s a perfect environment that’s going to embrace the speed of (Matheson’s) game.”
Long-time Penguins fans may remember Letang’s struggles in his first few years, especially in the playoffs. It was ugly in the postseason, making Letang the perfect player to lift Matheson if the newbie begins to doubt.
Matheson’s speed and puck movement resulted in adequate statistics, even as his play invited scrutiny. In the shortened last season, Matheson notched 20 points, including eight goals. The season before, he scored 27 points (8g, 19a).
Those stats would surpass the Penguins’ offensive contributions from Justin Schultz, who departed for Washington via free agency.
After speaking with multiple sources, PHN hasn’t heard a bad word about Matheson. A common theme was Matheson sometimes cares too much about his team, which is a factor Matheson pressing too hard.
We’ll find out more about the new Penguins defenseman, who Penguins fans should get to know. He’ll be around for a long time as he has six years remaining on his current contract.
And the perfect situation with a game suited to his strengths could be the necessary fix for a player who possesses all of the skills the Penguins value. If you ask the people around Matheson, they think the Penguins are the team to help him bring it all together.