Mike Matheson has been ranked the Florida Panthers’ top prospect the past two years, but when training camp opens later this week, he’ll be treated like any other rookie.
Matheson’s freshman status doesn’t offer much in the way of pull with the varsity team.
In this week’s prospect tournament in Estero, Matheson is wearing No. 56 — a high, unattractive number typically given to younger players.
Don’t let the number fool you, however.
“He is an elite skater and now we have to see what he does with the puck,’’ said Scott Luce, the Panthers’ director of scouting.
“He’s going to be a top four guy for us. We just have to figure out where he’s going to fit in.’’
The Panthers picked Matheson with the 23rd overall pick in 2012 and have watched the 6-2 defenseman progress over the years.
Matheson, 21, spent the past three seasons at Boston College where he was considered one of the top collegiate defensemen in the country — ranked atop the Florida prospect pool by the Hockey News and others the past two years.
Last year, after his junior season at BC, Matheson decided to go pro and officially signed with the Panthers.
Florida sent Matheson to its AHL team in San Antonio where he got a small taste of the pro life.
“I think it really helped, help me get my feet wet and get an idea of what pro hockey is all about,’’ said Matheson, who had a pair of assists in five games with the Rampage.
“Even though it was only five games, it did calm my nerves down. You know you’ve played a little pro hockey. Coming into this camp, a lot of guys were there in San Antonio. It makes you feel a little more comfortable, more at ease.’’
In years past, Matheson would participate in the Panthers’ development camp and then head back to Boston to be with his collegiate team.
This year, Matheson is able to take part in the rookie tournament and then begin his first NHL training camp with the Panthers on Friday morning.
“It’s exciting for sure, and kind of weird that I’m thinking about staying here so it’s a different mentality,’’ he said.
Tom Rowe, the coach of Florida’s AHL team which is now in Portland, Maine, said he was impressed with Matheson’s play in Saturday’s 2-1 rookie tournament win against Washington.
“He is a really good hockey player and this was the first time I really got a close look at him,’’ said Rowe, who briefly coached Matheson in San Antonio last year. “He played with an edge, skated well.’’
Florida is deep on defense, something Matheson knows all too well.
Making the big club out of camp is not going to be easy as the Panthers have eight defensemen who played for them last season.
The Panthers are expected to keep seven.
So barring trade or injury, Matheson’s season will likely start in the minors.
“This team is deep everywhere,’’ Matheson said. “It’s a good organization, there is a lot of talented players throughout. It’s a good thing for the organization that there isn’t a lot of room. It creates a lot of competition. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. I think it’s all positive.’’
Said Luce: “His adjustment is going to be more on the timing of his puck decisions, things like that. Once he adjusts to the quickness and the pace of play, he’ll be OK. The thing is, will it come immediately or will it take a month or two, or the whole season? He will have to adjust, but all prospects have to do that.’’
A strong camp and solid play would likely have Matheson recalled sometime this season and Florida expects him to be a part of its team fulltime in 2016.
Don’t expect him to be wearing that No. 56 either. Although the numbers he initially had interest in are taken — Aaron Ekblad wears No. 5 and Dmitry Kulikov has No. 7 — Matheson said he will likely take No. 19.
Being able to select his own number will come in time.
“The most important thing for me is to come in and not try to do too much,’’ Matheson said. “I just have to play consistently well and minimize the mistakes especially on the defensive side. There are little things I can do to prove I’m ready to play at the NHL level.’’
▪ The Panthers opened their prospect tournament at Germain Arena in Estero with a 2-1 shootout victory over Washington on Saturday afternoon.
Florida trailed 1-0 before Connor Brickley tied it with six minutes remaining.
Florida won it when Jayce Hawryluk scored in the shootout and goalie Sam Brittain stopped the Capitals on all three of their attempts.
“It was a typical first game of a rookie tournament,’’ Rowe said. “We did some good things, and saw some good play from kids here as free agents.’’
▪ The Panthers continue play in the four-team tournament Sunday against Nashville at 3 p.m. Admission is free.