Even the stodgiest of NHL teams would Dab, Whip and Nae-Nae if they knew it guaranteed a rookie defenseman would evolve into Duncan Keith or Chris Letang. Which brings us to Panthers rookie defenseman Michael Matheson.
Last summer, general manager Dale Tallon paid Matheson a grand compliment when comparing the Panthers under construction with the three-time Stanley Cup winner in Chicago, whose core Tallon put together. For all Tallon thinks of 2014-15 Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad, he saw Matheson as the eventual equivalent to Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Keith.
“That’s the guy who can skate like Duncan and can play like him,” Tallon said.
Asked for a current NHL role model, however, Matheson named Pittsburgh’s Letang.
“I train with Chris Letang in the summer, so he’s a guy I definitely look up to,” Matheson said. “He works really hard in the offseason. I’ve had the opportunity to watch what he does and, obviously, I’ve paid attention to what he does on the ice, too. He’s just a great two-way defenseman. He makes sure he takes care of responsibilities in the [defensive] zone and his skating allows him to join the rush as a second-wave guy. That’s the kind of game I try to model mine after.”
Tallon, a defenseman during his NHL career, knows it’s the position that takes the most time to master and figured hours of American Hockey League ice time would do Matheson good. And the 43 games did.
“Makes a huge difference,” Matheson said. “My confidence level from training camp until now, the areas of my game that needed work have gotten a lot of work down in the minors. That experience really makes a huge difference.”
Though an offensive defenseman, Matheson’s scoring numbers in Portland — five goals, nine assists, 14 points — don’t say as much as his plus-minus rating of plus-14.
“That’s one of the areas I’ve been focusing on is minimizing the amount of time I spend in the [defensive] zone,” he said. “Once you start doing that, obviously, you’re on for more goals for than against.”
Had the Panthers’ injury situation remained normal, Matheson would’ve spent Saturday afternoon in Toronto, where the Pirates played the Toronto Marlies in a matinee lunch before the traditional Canadian Saturday night supper, Hockey Night in Canada. Instead, injuries to two of the Panthers’ top four defensemen, Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson, put Matheson on an earlier flight to the NHL than planned.
Also on that flight with Matheson: forward and roommate in Portland, Kyle Rau.
“It helps having somebody to come down here with just to be able to talk about the same thing because you’re both going through the same thing at the same time,” Matheson said. “If I was alone, I’m sure I would’ve had a ton of thoughts going through my head the whole flight.”
SEASON-TICKET RENEWALS ARE UP
Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu said Saturday night the team is running four to five times ahead of season-ticket renewals compared to last year.
“For 21 years, it’s been very, very difficult,” Cifu said. “What [co-owner] Vinnie [Viola] and I said was we want to bring stability and consistency to this organization, top to bottom. Sign good players, and we showed it by signing [Nick] Bjugstad and [Sasha] Barkov [to long-term deals], we’re going to do some other guys shortly, I hope, and deliver a consistent product. We’re not going to win every night, but we’re going to try really hard.”
Cifu said he’ll consider it a good season “if there’s a parade down Las Olas Boulevard” with the Stanley Cup.