Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike. He is a Panther and therefore I love him. But dang, what went wrong this season? Matheson started his professional career out promising, by posting two back to back 81-game seasons. He was minus five in his first outing (I don’t count the three games in 2015-2016) and tightened up a bit to minus one in his sophomore effort. He added 17 and 27 points in respective years. He dazzled us with deft skating and smooth hands to score some very impressive goals. Specifically, in 2017-2018 a goal against the Red Wings in Detroit at the end of the second period, Mike steals the puck behind the net, makes a quick outlet “give” pass to McCann, takes the “go” pass in the neutral zone, executes a Denis Savard (millennials might have to Google this name) Spin-A-Rama at the opposing blue line, breaks to the net, fakes a back hander, stones the goalie, pulls the puck back to the forehand, gets poke checked and tripped, and scores far post.
One of the best goal sequences for the Panthers outside of “The Goal” this past year. We got used to seeing his skill and what looked like a keen ability to move up into the offensive end at the right time. It looked like we were heading very nicely in the right direction.
Then came 2018-2019. In 75 games he posted a consistent 27 points, however he also led the entire NHL in turnovers against at 135 and posted a -71 difference in turnovers for versus turnovers against. Unfortunately, he was accompanied by Yandle (110) and Ekblad (122) at the bottom of this telling turnover statistic list. His plus-minus plummeted to a -24. He appeared to be hesitant in his decision making when in his defensive zone and often made poor turn overs at inopportune moments directly leading to scoring chances and several goals against. He looked like his confidence was shaken. He consistently tries to do too much in any given situation. He automatically chooses the alternative of trying to skate out of every situation and tends to attempt the safest option of moving the puck up the boards and out of the zone as the absolute last option when it is too late. He had several situations throughout the season where a missed opportunity to clear the zone led to a goal against. And when you are in company with the league bottom dwellers in defensive zone stats, these type of mental mistakes and blunders are heightened. Further, when your team is known for poor goal tending you must tend towards the conservative or safe option in defensive zone situations, something he failed at this year.
Matheson was also involved in some controversy around the league for his hit on Elias Pettersson, where he took a two-game suspension for the lapse in judgement. The play was a hallmark and typical of his 2018-2019 season. Pettersson did a quick turn on the left-wing boards earlier in the play and embarrassed Matheson. Then when Pettersson ended up behind the net later in the play, Matheson retaliated. He had the choice to hit the opposing player and take him out of the play or attempt to injure the opposing player. He chose the latter which was detrimental to the team. In the most analytical of hockey terms, it was an incredibly “dumb play.
Matheson was drafted 23rd overall in 2012 and signed an entry level contract with the Panthers after his junior year at Boston College (2014-2015) where he was named team captain. He earned All-Second Team East Honors in the NCAA. He played in the AHL in 2015-2016 and permanently made it to the big club in 2016-2017. After a good 2016-2017 season, the Panthers signed Matheson to an 8-year, $39 million contract extension, which is a $4,875,000 cap hit. This is indicative of salaries for first and second pair defenders.
The Good: He can skate, and I mean really skate well. He has great wheels. He is agile and quick. He has relatively good hands and can make shifty and well-timed moves and he has an above average shot, even if it does not transfer directly to goals for. He is young, so hopefully he has a chance to make these goods pronounced. I credit Mike for these traits, as he is blessed with natural offensive talent that is difficult to coach: you either have it or you don’t. This was exhibited in a coast to coast play against the Bruins in December 2018.
The Bad: His situational awareness leaves much to be desired. He simply makes too many mistakes and errors in judgement at the worst time. I think he sees the game through a forward’s eyes, a forward who thinks he can beat anyone with his skating and stickhandling ability. That is fantastic if you are on a two on one breakout into the offensive zone. It is the exact opposite when you are the last man back, behind your net, facing the glass, with two forecheckers on you. He tries to make the game more difficult than it needs to be. He could get away with it in the lower leagues and maybe his first two years, but this game is heavily scouted and opposing teams do their homework and can easily find and exploit a player’s faults. I will take the easy way out here and give the credit for these bad qualities to the system and the coaching that established it. A coach’s duty is to make the system fit around the player unless they can replace the player. His cap hit is quite large and makes moving him difficult without substantial salary retainage. I think coaching failed him this year. He is young and has time, with proper coaching, to turn the ship back in the right direction.
Final Grade: D
There were a few highlights and some very good times for Mike this year. Unfortunately, there were more bad times. It’s not a completely failing grade and there is room and hope for major improvement. There are instances of greatness along with periods of doubt. I am curious to see how he will be employed by Coach Q in his fourth year. I think establishing a proper defensive scheme, very in-depth zone start control, defensive partner selection, and line matching will be needed for Mike to become a successful D-man for this team. He is making the level of compensation that requires higher level consistent defensive play. I like the kid and I want good things for him and the Panthers.
Thanks for reading!