The Florida Panthers signed defenseman Michael Matheson to a big, long-term deal over the weekend and in the process, signaled that the franchise is heading in the right direction. Given how much front office turnover there has been in Sunrise lately, this was no given. And while the ‘Computer Boys’ seem to have lost the war to the traditionalists, it’s obvious that GM Dale Tallon knows what he has in Matheson.
“He is a dynamic and intelligent defenseman with impeccable character and work ethic,” Tallon said. “Mike has developed into a difference maker on our blue line and will be an important player and leader for the Panthers for many years to come.”
And yes, it’s still important to look down the road if you’re a Panthers fan. This current iteration has the chance to be pretty good, but probably not great. As soon as next year, however, you might have something hot.
The key is to have the entire young core healthy at the same time. Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau have all gone through tough injury stretches in the past few years and that has held back the Cats. But add in Matheson and Vince Trocheck to that company and you’ve got yourself a pretty good core. Grow them all together for a season and the future looks excellent.
Matheson’s deal comes in at eight years and $39 million, for a cap hit of $4.8 million per season. That’s a very reasonable amount for a player who is already showing the makings of a top shutdown defenseman. Don’t forget; Matheson is only coming off his entry-level deal. He spent three years at Boston College after Florida drafted him out of USHL Dubuque in 2012 and basically a full season in the AHL with Portland before becoming a Panthers regular.
Now, he’s playing against top lines and winning the possession battle. What’s more, he’s doing it with Mark Pysyk, not Ekblad. This is a great thing for Florida, as the team will have the luxury of two effective defense pairings for at least seven more seasons. And if Ian McCoshen, another Boston College alum, can take a step forward as an NHL regular this season, the Cats will have another effective weapon on the back end. And I haven’t even mentioned veteran offensive defenseman Keith Yandle, who is also locked in long-term. That contract may not be great in four years, but for now Yandle is quite valuable in a couple different ways.
Perhaps because he was a Canadian playing in the USHL, Matheson didn’t get a ton of buzz during his draft year. When Florida grabbed him in the first round (23rd overall), the sense was sort of, “mmmm…good pick.”
Owing partly to the fact he was an NCAA player during a time when Hockey Canada did not like non-CHLers, Matheson didn’t play in the world juniors. But he did win gold at the Ivan Hlinka tourney and, once he had turned pro, helped Canada to gold at the 2016 World Championship. Oh, and he was named best defenseman of the tournament at the latter showdown.
Last year, Matheson and Pysyk were the anchors of a penalty-kill that finished second overall, just a smidge behind Boston. That pairing isn’t going to get a lot of glory this season, but both will be valuable. And Matheson now has the extension to prove it.