The last couple of seasons were not Hallmark moments for Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson. After a booming start to his NHL career, the Florida Panthers signed him to an eight-year deal. His sophomore season more closely resembled his rookie year, but the following couple of years were a steep decline, and he became the Penguins’ responsibility.
The Penguins coaches, including new assistant coach Todd Reirden who has been praised for his work with defensemen, had about one week to work with Matheson in training camp before the circumstances of the COVID NHL season forced them to drop him into the deep end.
Then, Matheson was the first of four left-handed defensemen to suffer an injury when he slammed into the end-wall after tangling with Philadelphia Flyers forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel while racing for a puck.
On Thursday, more than two weeks after a false start to his Penguins career, Matheson was a full participant at the Penguins uptempo practice. It’s not a guarantee, but Matheson spoke to the media on Thursday, which is also a good sign the player is ready.
“(Matheson and Zach Aston-Reese) statuses are still day-to-day, but that’s encouraging (that they participated in practice),” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan.
The Penguins’ next game is Saturday in Long Island, against the New York Islanders. The next encouraging signs will be Matheson integrating himself into the Penguins blueline, which injuries have hammered. The 26-year-old defenseman is only one of two healthy LHD on the Penguins roster.
The Penguins will need him up-to-speed quickly, and then the reclamation project will begin again.
“I wanted to come in and have an impact, start off on the right foot,” Matheson said of his Penguins debut. “(The injury) caused me to have a bit of patience, sit back and watch a bit of hockey.”
Matheson got a crash course on the Pittsburgh Penguins system in the abbreviated camp but then got to watch from above. He wouldn’t be the first player to learn a few things and take a step forward, despite the immediate step back.
However, the time away cost him the ability to jell with his new teammates and get the early season momentum, which can propel a player.
One can learn a lot from watching. It’s an easier game watching from the press box (that’s why we media members know so much about hockey, eh).
“…I didn’t want to be out. I wanted to show my teammates that I could work hard for them and be a good teammate, and it was hard to show that sitting on the sidelines,” Matheson said. “I’m a pretty motivated person, so I just took a step back and tried to take advantage of the fact that I wasn’t playing and got to watch all the games from a different perspective.
Obviously, when you’re watching the game from the press box, everything is so much slower. The game looks so easy up there.”
Yep. It’s an easy game from the press box. And perhaps Matheson was able to add a few things for the brain box to accelerate his schematic integration.
When former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford traded for Matheson, there were many questions about Matheson’s play. However, there are no questions about his talent.
He’s lightning fast. Quick on his feet with good vision and offensive instincts. The reason Florida lavished him with an eight-year deal after his rookie season was to lock up a future star at a reasonable rate.
But the best-laid plans often veer off script.
“We’ve been friends for a little bit. I’m just trying to look at things while he can watch the game,” Letang said. “He’s a great player. He fits right in with the organization the way he plays the game with his speed and skill.”
Even with a down year last season, Matheson popped 20 points (8g, 12a) in 59 games. In the previous two seasons, Matheson scored 27 points each. By comparison, Justin Schultz only scored 12 points (3g, 9a) in 46 games and made slightly more money.
In that context, the Penguins saved a few dollars. But, they’d surely like the best version of Matheson.
“It’s unfortunate he got an injury. He’s a really focused guy,” Letang said. “He comes in the morning. He works out. He takes care of his body really well. I expect him to come back on the ice and be pretty strong for us.”
Matheson won’t have to worry about fighting for ice time or lineup placement. His placement is secure on the Pittsburgh Penguins second pair as neither Marcus Pettersson nor Brian Dumoulin are skating yet.
Now comes Matheson’s second chance. Again.