Newly acquired Montreal Canadiens defenceman Mike Matheson could not only become a key player for the Canadiens but also a leader on and off the ice.
Acquired – along with a 2023 fourth round pick – from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for veteran defenceman Jeff Petry and centre Ryan Poehling last Saturday, the hope is that the 28-year-old, 6-foot-2, 188-pound rearguard can come in and be a solid and stabilizing, yet offensive presence on the Montreal Canadiens blue line. What the Canadiens are also hoping and could use, is his experience and leadership for a Canadiens defence that is becoming younger and younger.
“I feel really comfortable that Mike is the kind of person in our locker room, at this point in his career, that can assist our young players, be it the draft picks like Juraj Slafkovsky or our young defensemen that are trying to make their way as regular NHL players,” said Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes who used to represent Matheson as a player agent before becoming the Canadiens GM. “Mike is a five-star human being who can be of great assistance to our club.”
Since his days playing for the Lac St-Louis Lions QMAAA, the Pointe Claire, Quebec native has been a natural leader. That’s why he was named captain in the second of his two seasons there (2010-11), and then wore the ‘C’ for the Boston College Eagles in his junior and final season before turning pro (2014-15).
“He is another ‘Captain Serious’,” his coach at Lac St-Louis Jon Goyens told Montreal Hockey Now recently, obviously referring to longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who earned the same nickname playing for Hockey Canada at the World Juniors before playing in the NHL.
“His skating and fitness level at 15 (years-old) were off the charts. Then he grew into an incredible captain for us on our way to a league championship and Bronze medal at the Telus Cup. This guy set the tempo and the accountability standards that were upheld during my entire tenure as coach there. Lions practices were tougher than games in large part due to Mikey.”
After being drafted 23rd overall by the Florida Panthers at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Matheson played three seasons for legendary hall of fame NCAA hockey coach Jerry York. After turning pro following his junior season, Matheson spent most of his first pro season in the AHL, playing 54 games for the Portland Pirates, before hitting the show for three games with the Panthers at the end of the 2015-16 season. After just one full NHL season in 2016-17, in which he had seven goals and 10 assists in 81 games, Mike Matheson found himself signing an eight-year, $39 million contract extension with the Panthers just prior to the 2016-17 season.
Over the first four years of the contract, Matheson, self-admittedly struggled to live up to the expectations, and three years into it, he was dealt to the Penguins, prior to the 2020-21 season.
“I’m older now and more experienced. Would I rather have not gone through so many struggles here early on? No. They were very tough times on me and not easy times, but at the same time, they led to who I am now. It was a great learning experience,” Matheson told the media Monday. “To be able to go through tough times is important for any player, if you can grow and use it to your advantage. I don’t know if my contract affected things or not. Things definitely snowballed in Florida in a bad way. It didn’t turn out the way I hoped for, but I don’t think I’d go back and change anything because it was a huge learning experience and it has helped me and will continue to help me through the rest of my career.”
Goyens has watched his former player and captain closely and from afar from his West Island home and as he pointed out, while he needed to make corrections to his game, it was hard to always know what those corrections were considering Matheson had five different head coaches when he played for the Panthers.
“Let’s not forget that in Florida where (former Panthers GM), Dale Tallon and (former Panthers head coach), Gerard Gallant both had high hopes for him, they would not be around very long,” Goyens pointed out. “He had five head coaches in Florida.”
Under one head coach, Mike Sullivan, for two seasons with the Penguins, Matheson’s game and he himself finally matured towards the potential so many know he still has.
“Pitt, after speaking with [Kris] Letang, was the right place for Mikey who is a student of the game, who embraces feedback and growth,” said Goyens who know Letang well. “Mikey’s maturation process on the ice had to do with not compounding mistakes, executing the first read with the puck and less is more approach. That has been really evident in his game and on display during the two seasons in Pitt.”
Goyens sees that current evolution in Matheson’s game being a perfect fit in Martin St. Louis’ system for the Montreal Canadiens.
“He will fit in really well in a concept based structure that allows players to play with instincts whilst executing the game plan,” Goyens said. “He will help to get the offensive transition going by recovering pucks quickly and zipping them up and with his skating ability that is amongst the best in the league.”
As Goyens also pointed out for those questioning his age now and for those harsh critics calling him a bust:
“Brian Rafalski’s 1st season in the NHL was at 26!” Goyens said.
All Rafalski went on to do after that was win three Stanley Cups, two Olympic Silver medals for USA and become a three-time all star. The Canadiens are hoping for the same late-blooming in Matheson and with his natural-born leadership skills, maybe he will wear a letter on his jersey like Rafalski did as well.