Among the 18 skaters on a hockey roster, you tend to have Thinkers (smart), Movers (speed) and Shakers (physical). Defenseman Mike Matheson combines the first two to be the best Panthers prospect nobody outside of hockey talks about.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon sees Matheson — not last year’s Calder Trophy winner, Aaron Ekblad — as doing for the Panthers down the line what Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Award winner Duncan Keith does for Chicago.
For one thing, Matheson is used to heavy Keith-like minutes and, Panthers manager of player development Bryan McCabe noted, is always in shape.
Also, he’s a Mover.
“Mike’s a dynamic skater, moves the puck well, just like Duncan Keith, obviously,” said McCabe, an NHL defenseman for 15 seasons. “I think we’d be jumping for joy if we caught lightning in a bottle like that. That’s his best attribute would be his skating. He’s a transitional player. He moves the puck, jumps into play, sees the ice very well. He’s very quick at what he does. Getting shots through from the point, his footwork allows him to have good gaps.”
After listing Keith along with Pittsburgh’s Chris Letang and the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh as role models for his game, Matheson said, “those guys make things happen offensively, of course, but they’re also reliable defensively.”
But Matheson is also a Thinker by nature.
“I’ve been able to be known as one of the more skilled players throughout my career,” he said. “One thing I always wanted to do is not be one of those guys who has a load of skill and didn’t really know what to do with it. You can see some players skate like the wind, but it seems like their mind isn’t going as fast as their legs are. I always wanted to make sure I was just as smart as I was skilled.”
He takes it off the ice, too. He is two classes short of a degree in psychology, an interest even before he assumed it as a major at Boston College.
“As I went into it further, I realized what I could do with it if hockey didn’t work out because I find we spend so much time and money working on our bodies and trying to train to be the right way,” Matheson said. “At the same time, being a good hockey player or athlete in general is probably 70 percent mental more than anything else. It doesn’t seem we spend much time working on the mental side of the game. I’d like to be able to bring the psychology side into hockey and try to work with players.”
Tallon said: “We like well-rounded athletes, cultured athletes and intelligent athletes. He wasn’t quite ready in his mind. We don’t tell kids when to come out, when to go or where to play junior or college, when to come out. It was his decision. We believe it was the right decision because he’s happy, he’s confident and he feels good about where he’s at right now.”
Matheson said he spent the season simplifying his game, improving his decision-making and being better defensively. Three goals and 22 assists for 25 points represented a college career high in assists and tied his career high in points.
Although the Panthers wouldn’t mind Matheson playing well enough to start the season in Sunrise, nobody will cry if the 21-year-old starts the season in the AHL at San Antonio. Over the years, thin rosters meant good prospects got shoved into the NHL too quickly, retarding their development.
That’s especially damaging to defensemen, the position that takes the longest to master.
“Defensemen, obviously, you have to use your brain a little more,” McCabe said. “It’s a big jump from college to the pros. Guys are stronger, quicker, in better position all the time. There’s a huge learning curve. You pick up some bad habits in college or junior just because you can. You play 30 minutes a game, you tend to pick up bad habits.”
▪ The Panthers signed minor-league forward Rob Flick on Thursday. After being selected in the fourth round of the 2010 NHL Draft by Chicago, Flick has spent the past four seasons in the AHL.