The hockey world did a collective double-take when Mike Matheson — with the help of his agent, current Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes — signed an eight-year contract extension with the Florida Panthers in October of 2017, After all, Matheson was just beginning the final year of his entry-level deal and had all of 86 NHL games under his belt. However, the Florida Panthers were betting that Matheson, who that May had been named Best Defenceman at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, and fellow early-20s defenceman Aaron Ekblad would form the anchors of their blue line for years to come.
The stunning nature of that contract created a problem: it would be used as the benchmark for Matheson’s career from then on. This may have been too much weight for a 22-year-old’s shoulders. Matheson’s game stagnated, and after two additional disappointing seasons in Florida, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Patric Hornqvist.
If the contract represented a weight on Matheson’s shoulders, being traded for a local hero like “Horny” compounded it. Matheson’s first season would be further complicated by injury, as the Penguins tried to find a fit for him in their lineup. Still, 16 points in 44 games offered the club a taste of the offensive gifts that had led Dale Tallon to offer him that shocking contract in the first place.
If 2020-21 was the appetizer, Matheson showcased the main course in 2021-22. Finally finding a partnership with Chad Ruhwedel to be his ideal place in the Penguins’ lineup, Matheson put up 11 goals and 20 assists in 77 games.
The point-production was also backed by strong on-ice five-on-five metrics: Matheson’s shot-attempt share (CF%: 53.7%) led the team, while his goal share (GF%: 55.7%) was third behind Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. With Letang hoovering up most of the Penguins’ power-play minutes, 28 of Matheson’s 31 points were tallied at five-on-five, a number good for 18th among defencemen NHL-wide. Coincidentally, 28 five-on-five points is also Jeff Petry’s single-season best.
Matheson’s play style is quite similar to that of Petry’s. Both are very adept at entering the offensive zone with possession, both are not afraid to shoot the puck, they have demonstrated the ability to set up teammates in danger zones, and both can play rush or cycle. Defensively, both defenders are very good at denying attackers the blue line, but are more average when forced to retrieve the puck in their own zone.
That’s not to say that Matheson is in the same league as the player he was traded for. While he’s arguably at his best as a second-pairing blue-liner, Petry has demonstrated that he can be leaned on for 25 minutes a night — even strength, penalty kill, and power play — if necessary. Matheson’s special-teams usage in 2021-22 was negligible at best, and he was most commonly fourth on the Penguins’ depth chart by ice time. While Matheson wasn’t overtly sheltered in terms of zone deployment, he also largely avoided top opposition players, facing off mostly against bottom-nine forwards.
The Pittsburgh Penguins found a positive deployment strategy, and Matheson rewarded them with a career season. Montreal will have to do likewise to get the most of their new acquisition. That said, Montreal’s blue line also represents an opportunity for Matheson to show that he can become more than he was in Pittsburgh; that he can play on the power play, on the penalty kill, and that he can serve as that 20-minute-plus top-pairing player. One hopes that if there is any individual who can understand Matheson’s strengths and weaknesses, it is the person who leveraged them back in 2017 to bewitch the Florida Panthers’ front office.