Unlike some at prospect camp this week, defenseman Michael Matheson isn’t aiming for a roster spot with the Panthers. At least not yet.
Matheson, 18, was Florida’s first-round pick in last month’s NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, and although he’s off to Boston College in the fall, Matheson is trying to leave a lasting impression on Florida’s front office.
“In some ways, I am just trying to sort everything out, soak everything in and learn everything I can,” said Matheson, the 23rd overall pick.
“But I’m here with the mentality that I want to make this team right now. I know that probably won’t happen, but there’s no point to come here and be relaxed just because I won’t be here next year. I’m working hard. You can’t impress anyone if you are just feeling your way around out there.”
Unlike past years, the Panthers didn’t have a high draft pick. There was speculation general manager Dale Tallon would trade his way up in the draft, and although he didn’t, the Panthers seem pleased with landing Matheson that late in the opening round.
“He’s a guy we really wanted and needed,” Tallon said not long after selecting Matheson. “He can really skate, and I love defensemen who can really skate. He’s arguably the best skater in the draft and is a guy who can move the puck. I like guys like that. This guy will bring speed from the back end, and that is something we needed to focus on. He was someone we really targeted.”
Matheson was lauded for his skating by Florida’s scouts and has looked quick and confident in the opening two days of the developmental camp in Coral Springs.
The Panthers might be deep on defense, but it’s always good to have plenty of depth at that position. Matheson likely will spend the next two or three seasons at Boston College before signing on with the Panthers organization.
Florida is fine with Matheson continuing his maturation process in college — especially with a top-notch program such as Boston College. Matheson will join the defending national champion Eagles as a freshman in the fall.
The Panthers have been impressed with Matheson so far and have compared his skating style and puck moving ability to current Florida defenseman Brian Campbell. Matheson, however, is a long way away from cracking the roster.
“He is not only a good player, but a real character guy,” said Brian Skrudland, the Panthers director of player development. “There have been no surprises with this guy. He can skate, has the heart and the desire. He knows what he wants. He’s going to Boston College, and why not? He’s excited, and we’re excited for him. We’re looking forward to seeing this guy in the future.”
A native of Quebec, Matheson speaks both French and English fluently — and said he will study Spanish at Boston College. The Panthers have been impressed not only with his intellect, but also his attitude toward the game.
Matheson played in the U.S. Hockey League last year in Dubuque, Iowa, scoring 11 goals with 16 assists in 53 games. In five postseason games for the Fighting Saints, Matheson scored a goal and assisted on five others.
“What I love is he is just a year removed from midget hockey,” said Scott Luce, the director of amateur scouting for the Panthers. “He’s going to get exponentially better just by default when he goes to Boston College. It would have been very easy for him to stay in the Quebec league, but he went to Dubuque. He’s a mature guy who is focused and determined. He went against the grain as compared to players from Quebec. He lived on a farm outside of town. He’s a character guy we like.”
Matheson spent much of Wednesday on the beach with his new Florida teammates. Many of them will be back later this summer for a rookie camp and tournament, although he will not because he will be in classes by then.
If Matheson wants to make his mark early on, he needs to do so now.
“After my meeting at the draft, I was confident they liked me,” Matheson said. “But you never know until your name is called.”
• The Panthers camp ends Friday; there will be scrimmages on Thursday and Friday starting at 9 a.m. at the Coral Springs Iceplex. Admission is free.