- Mike Matheson had just 86 NHL under his belt when he signed an eight-year extension with the Florida Panthers. His sturdy play and strong mental game make him a worthy investment.
When the NHL emerged from its boardroom hibernation on Jan. 6, 2013, the newly ratified CBA established an eight-year upper limit for contract extensions, a modest length compared to the spree of double-digit deals that had preceded the labor strife. The first such contract was signed 10 days after the half-season lockout ended—so eager were the New Jersey Devils and Travis Zajac—and since then a total of 33 players have agreed to maximum term. Lately it's been happening at an accelerant rate; 10 of those 33 came in the past four months alone, including Jack Eichel ($80 million), Carey Price ($84 million) and Connor McDavid ($100 million). Indeed, the club of eight-years maintains illustrious company.
Over the phone, Mike Matheson is listening to these names of his new peers. His extension was the most recently finalized, on Oct. 7, not long before the second game of the Florida Panthers’ season and the 86th NHL game of the defenseman’s career. Technically this makes him the least experienced max-term player under the new CBA; the other 32 averaged 455 regular-season games at the time of their signings. “I didn’t even think to look at that,” he says, pausing for a moment to think. “Actually, that’s funny. I think they’ve definitely done a lot more in the league as of now. I have a long way to go to be able to fill those types of shoes, or to be in the same conversation as them. But that’s definitely my goal, to get to that point in my career.”
Matheson is calling from his parents’ house in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, less than a half-hour outside Montreal, where luckily for him the Panthers had scheduled an off-day on their road trip. Specifically, he is standing in the living room, looking out at the backyard. His contract—totaling $39 million, the cheapest eight-year deal on the market by $7 million—doesn’t kick in until next season. Fame hasn’t exactly overtaken Matheson yet, not even in La belle province. “I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere close to be being a big name,” Matheson says. “Definitely got a lot of work to do to be able to consider myself a recognizable athlete.”
The Panthers, for what it's worth, consider him one of their best and sturdiest defensemen, a year and a half removed from Best Defenseman honors at the 2016 world championships with Team Canada, capable of averaging a team-high 17:56 per game at even strength last season during his first full tour in the league. When extension talks began over the summer, general manager Dale Tallon began by putting both a shorter bridge contract and a longer, five- or six-year option on the table. Instead, Matheson’s camp came back and suggested eight. This was an easy sell for the front office. “We thought it was a very fair deal, a kid we have no worries about,” Tallon says. “Everyone’s got their opinion. They don’t know the player like we do.”
Finding the full picture didn’t take long, they had found. Matheson is the kind of person who doesn’t drink, but had no problem looking after teammates who wanted to let loose at Boston College home football games. The sits-in-the-front-row, raises-his-hand guy. He has a psychology degree, finished midseason in the minors. Currently he’s reading two books: Legacy, the deep-dive into the New Zealand All-Blacks that Florida coach Bob Boughner gave every player, and Tom Brady’s The TB12 Method. (“Just one or two chapters,” he says. “Still getting into it.”) He also tested as the Panthers’ fittest player at the past two training camps.
The team evacuated before Hurricane Irma on a chartered flight to Boston—Matheson slept at his agent Kent Hughes’s house and hung out with Hughes’s children, like he did for several months prior to his first pro season, when he would hold 5:30 a.m. workouts before summer school classes—but he was among the first back in town, serving hot dogs and burgers on a food truck. “He’ll give his shirt off his back to someone if they need it,” says Panthers defenseman Ian McCoshen, who was already doing fine with the team-issued shuttle service this preseason until Matheson, unprompted, handed over the keys to his Jeep Wrangler. “I know it sucks being in the hotel,” Matheson told his former B.C. teammate, “so take this.”
That wasn’t Matheson’s only ride, to be clear, but he has a naturally frugal soul. (He once watched an interview with “Chad Ochocinco, of all people,” about saving money and uses this as a reference for comparison.) He didn't buy anything to celebrate the extension but lists a long-term plan of buying a house, big paycheck on the horizon and all. Security was the reward that the Panthers gave him, in exchange for betting that his $4.857 million annual salary would be a fiscal bargain on the back end of the term.
By signing Matheson at a relatively low cost, the Panthers traded maximum security for the bet that he’d be a fiscal bargain down the line. Think Roman Josi, who currently costs only $4 million against Nashville’s cap. “Not many guys can skate like that, and he’s going to skate like that for a long time,” Tallon says of Matheson. “He’s a kid that we felt that he was going to be a mainstay on our D. We felt it was the right thing to do.”
The pressures of such a big deal won’t feel the same in Florida as, say, Matheson’s hometown of Montreal—to borrow from the opposite end of the spectrum. But Matheson has taken them into consideration all the same. Psych major, remember?
“It’s hard to step on the ice and not think, ‘They put that confidence in me and I’ve only played this many games and I need to show them that they made the right choice,’” he says. “It’s hard not to think that. But I literally wrote my name down on a piece of paper. That doesn’t make me any better of a hockey player. I still have a lot of work to do. And it’s not going to happen over night.”
It’s afternoon now, last week. Matheson is still looking at the family backyard, picturing winters from childhood. “We have an area that we’d make our rink, a big stretch of grass,” he says. “We used to have a couple trees. You can just see the stumps now. But a couple trees would be right in the corner of the rink, right on the ice. We always used to call those our defensemen.”
In a way, this is Matheson’s happy place. He always felt like he had “above-average skills” as a kid, a strong skater who worked hard to improve his shot. But he never seemed able to shake mistakes. “I’d get home after the game and be so mad because I knew I’d worked on that the day before and I still made the mistake,” he says, “so I’d be up all night thinking about it...feeling like the whole world is crashing down and letting that compound into another mistake.” Even these days, 11 games into his second full NHL season and with the Panthers sitting at 4-6-1, he struggles with letting errors linger. “I’ve been trying to push the pace a little bit too much, trying to do a little bit too much with the puck instead of letting the game come to me,” he says. “That’s not a physical thing. That’s mental, you know. That’s psychological.”
Here is where the backyard helps. “I think to myself that, well, if it were the 6-year-old me in the outdoor rink at my parents’ house, would that guy be worried about the mistakes he made last game, or would he be happy that he gets to go out and do it again tomorrow night?” Matheson has heard hockey minds call their sport 30 percent mental and 70 percent physical, but finds it strange that no one budgets training accordingly. “Nobody ever says, ‘Oh I need to work on not putting too much pressure on myself,'” he says. This curiosity led him to seek out a sports psychologist when he was younger, and later classes on the subject once he enrolled at Boston College in 2012, a few months after the Panthers picked him at No. 23.
The goal wasn’t to wind up wearing glasses and a sweater, seeing patients on a couch, but to gain a better understanding of himself—as an athlete and person. One social psych class, for instance, got him thinking about “why I might be doing certain things and feeling things in certain situations.” When he was a rookie on Florida’s AHL affiliate in Portland, Maine, Matheson spent the first semester finishing his degree with an independent study about a concept called “flow states,” which Matheson describes as, “You feel like everything goes perfectly. You have that perfect game where you can see the ice perfectly, see the field perfectly, it doesn’t feel like you have any distractions, you’re incredibly dialed into what you’re doing.”
He chose an open-ended focus: home games versus away games, each with unique inhibitors to flow states. Home is familiar, 41 games a year for NHL players, but invariably busier between family matters and ticket requests. The road can be freeing that way, but each city has different restaurants, different hotel beds, different rhythms. “The one common theme that I found was that routine is super, super important for developing flow states,” Matheson says.
On a macro level, the NHL offers no greater opportunity to ensure routine than an eight-year contract. As he finishes out the entry-level contract signed after his junior season at B.C., price tag $925,000 annually, Matheson had one point through October but an encouraging positive even-strength shot differential alongside usual partner Mark Pysyk. Players in the past weren’t exactly leaping to sign long-term deals with Florida, but Matheson and Aaron Ekblad—eight years, $60 million in July ‘16—form a strong nucleus for the future core.
“I think it gives us some sense of security that we’re going to have a good player for a long time, and towards the second half of that contract, it’ll probably be a great contract for the Panthers,” coach Bob Boughner says. “It was a great move. This kid is definitely not going to rest on his laurels. He’s not going to be a guy you worry about signing to a long-term deal and change his game. He’s going to earn it every single day.”
Nearing the end of training camp, Matheson invited McCoshen over for dinner. (One assumes the guest arrived via Jeep Wrangler.) They were teammates for two years at B.C., both psychology majors, drafted one year apart by the Panthers. McCoshen looked up to Matheson, like how he'd dash to the rink to skate on his own between classes and how, as a junior captain, he still earned respect from the seniors.
Now in late September, over pork loin, sweet potatoes and green beans, “we had a good long talk about life in general,” McCoshen recalls. They discussed a little hockey, anticipating Boughner’s first season and a hopeful rebound year after missing the playoffs in ‘16-17. Matheson’s contract extension was already in the works by then but didn’t come up. Mostly the evening was filled with good conversation between friends, at a Fort Lauderdale apartment a mile and a half from the ocean, a new beach backyard stretching into the horizon.