After defenseman Michael Matheson’s collegiate tenure at Boston College ended and he turned pro, it was only a matter of time before the Florida Panthers’ first round pick from the 2012 NHL Draft would get his first taste of the NHL.
It didn’t take too long for Matheson, in his first full season of professional hockey, to get that opportunity. It began on February 19th when he earned his first NHL call-up – making his NHL debut the next day in Sunrise, Florida as a member of the Panthers against the Winnipeg Jets.
While still learning the subtleties of the pro-style game, Matheson is well-regarded by the Panthers organization, and is certainly considered to be in Florida’s plans for the future.
“We like where his game is going,” Scott Allen, Matheson’s head coach with the AHL’s Portland Pirates, said. “It’s heading in the right direction.”
Matheson began his pro career at the tail end of the 2014-15 season, appearing in five games with the Panthers’ then-AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage. He tallied two assists in those five games and got a feel for what playing at the AHL level would be like before the summer.
He didn’t have the start he would have liked to the 2015-16 season with the Portland Pirates, going a -3 in the Pirates’ 6-4 opening night loss to the Providence Bruins.
“It’s been an adjustment. Obviously the amount of games you play is the big adjustment,” Matheson said on his transition from NCAA hockey to the pros. “Being able to be ready each night and staying consistent is the biggest adjustment I have had to make.”
As with most first-year players, there is certainly a learning curve when making the jump to the professional ranks. Matheson was a minus player in October, but quickly started to learn from his mistakes and focused on his defensive game alongside veteran Brent Regner – going a +14 in his next 22 games and becoming a more reliable two-way defenseman.
“I think it’s been going better as the season has gone on,” the rookie defenseman said after a recent win over Lehigh Valley. “I’ve had good defense partners and leadership guys on the team that have helped me, like Brent Regner and Cameron Gaunce. They have been in this league for a long time so they have definitely learned some things that they have been able to pass on to me.
“At first my role was a little limited to focus on errors in my game that needed work,” Matheson continued. “They didn’t want to put me in situations where I wouldn’t be able to have success. As the season’s gone on they have given me a bit more responsibilities, and I’d say that it has been a good way to transition into this league.”
Before his call-up to the NHL, Matheson talked a lot about consistency. It seems that it has been engrained into his development and progression this season since Day One.
“The consistency aspect is probably the biggest, whether that’s making consistent smart plays with the puck, being consistent in my D-zone – all aspects of the game,” explained Matheson. “I think it all comes back to consistency really. The guys that are able to find that consistency in their game are the guys who make it to the NHL and have success. That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to focus on.”
Matheson’s AHL coach in Portland mirrored his sentiments about being consistent and understanding that there is going to be times when he is going to have off nights. It is all about maintaining a level of consistent play and keeping it simple to avoid sticking out in a bad way.
“He is smart enough to simplify his game when he knows things aren’t happening,” Allen said of Matheson. “That’s what guys need to understand and realize that being a consistent pro is understanding certain nights when you don’t have your A-game, you have to find a way to still be solid and not be a guy that hurts your team.”
For a guy like Matheson and fellow rookie Kyle Rau – who were both called up to the NHL with Matheson returning to the AHL today – transitioning from the college game, where the season is short and typically only played on weekends, to the grinding AHL schedule in pro hockey is extremely difficult to adapt to.
“February is when these young first-year pros usually hit the wall, and we are certainly seeing that with some of our young guys right now,” Allen said. “For those guys, they have already played a season basically and there’s a lot of hockey left to play. As the season goes on, the games get bigger and bigger and the challenges are tougher. It’s certainly a challenge for a first-year guy.”
At the end of the day, Matheson has the potential to be have a long career in the NHL. Time will tell just how soon he can make the jump to the NHL and stick full-time, but if his first 48 AHL games are any indication of where his game is headed, the future is certainly bright for the Pointe-Claire, Quebec native.
“The biggest thing with him is consistency,” Allen re-iterated. “He has the ability to be a dynamic offensive guy, and we want that. He has to play with some risk in his game, but not overdo it. We want him to be solid first and foremost defensively because, if you’re a defenseman and you can’t defend consistently, it’s tough to make that jump to the next level because the players only get better when you get to the NHL. He doesn’t have a lot of things to work on, it’s just about being able to do it night in and night out and playing simple.”
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