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New beginnings for Matthias

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
Shawn Matthias hasn’t been a Canuck for very long, but he has already made his mark on the ice. The 6-4, 223 pound forward has size and speed in spades. But is he a long term fit in Vancouver?

On March 4th, 2014, the Canucks and Florida Panthers pulled what has become an annual tradition between the two clubs – a blockbuster trade. The big story was of course Roberto Luongo returning to the Panthers, but the Canucks also acquired a pair of talented young NHLers, including versatile forward Shawn Matthias.

Matthias’ six-degrees-of-separation connection to Vancouver unknowingly began many years ago. The Canucks originally acquired Luongo from the Panthers in June of 2006, sending a package headlined by Todd Bertuzzi back the other way. Bertuzzi suited up in only seven games as a Panther (thanks to back surgery) before he headed to Detroit in a 2007 deadline deal. Florida’s return in that trade was an emerging young forward from the Belleville Bulls. If you guessed Matthias, you would be correct.

To summarize – the Canucks traded Bertuzzi for Luongo. Bertuzzi was then traded for Matthias. And then the Canucks traded Luongo for Matthias. Kevin Bacon eat your heart out.

Matthias’ skill set is pretty obvious when you watch him play – he is very big (as mentioned, 6-4 and over 220 pounds) and a great skater, too. Regardless of how the game is being called, big guys who can skate can almost always find a home in the NHL (save for Fedor Fedorov). Matthias had fallen out of favor in Florida after getting passed on the depth chart by Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trocheck, and his offensive game had never really developed as the Panthers had once hoped (in 312 games with the club, Matthias notched only 48 goals). He wasn’t given much of a scoring role with the club until recently, and as we know there is always more to the story than what shows up on the stat sheet.

Matthias has one year left on his $1.75 million-per-season contract. He is a lock to be on the Canucks roster next season (barring any unforeseen circumstances). But what role will he play? Is he a long term solution on the third line? Does he still have some more offensive upside to his game?

Let’s find some answers to those questions.

As an 18-year-old power forward in the OHL, Matthias caught the attention of the Detroit Red Wings who selected him with a second round pick (47th overall) in the 2006 NHL Draft. His offensive numbers weren’t good enough to get him into the first round, but both his skills and size were trending in the right direction. Matthias took a huge offensive step forward in his third OHL season, notching 38 goals and 73 points in 2006-07. He spent one more year with Belleville before turning pro and joining the Panthers organization.

Matthias played most of his rookie professional season for the Rochester Americans (Florida’s AHL affiliate), but he cracked the Panthers roster as a full-timer in 2009-10. In 55 games, he finished with seven goals and 16 points (and a Kyle Wellwood-like 10 penalty minutes).

Florida hoped that Matthias would follow a similar offensive progression at the pro level as he did in the OHL. However, his numbers never really progressed much over the next four seasons. Through an unbeatable combination of great drafting and bad hockey, the Panthers were able to stockpile arguably the best crop of prospects (particularly of the forward variety) in hockey during that time, and Matthias became a bit redundant.

The fact that he never really became the player that Florida had hoped for doesn’t mean that his tenure there wasn’t full of highlights, though. Here are a few of his best moments as a Panther.

This is what happens when a 6-4, 223 pound forward with a good head of steam hits a 225 pound brick wall of a defenseman.

Here is a phenomenal individual effort against everybody’s favorite team. This clip shows off all of the great parts of Matthias’ game – his speed, his size and strength, and his surprisingly good hands:

And speaking of speed and hands….

Florida’s (recently-fired) former assistant GM Mike Santos offered his thoughts as to why Matthias may not have developed as quickly as hoped:

“He was asked to play a lot of different roles on a lot of different lines, playing a lot of different positions. He did everything he was asked of him. He’s a kid who maybe wasn’t developed the way we now develop our young guys, meaning he may have been rushed into the NHL before he was ready.’’

That is a great point that often gets lost on fans. Look at the success Gustav Nyquist is having this season in Detroit. Often times what happens after the draft matters much more than what happens at the draft. Player development is so vital in today’s game. And we have seen that firsthand with Nicklas Jensen’s rapid improvement under Travis Green’s watch in Utica this season. Where would Matthias’ game be right now if he had never been traded from Detroit?

It is still very, very early in terms of evaluating Matthias’ tenure and future as a Canuck. The fact that the Canucks were able to shed Luongo’s salary gives them a lot of cap flexibility in the coming years. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom is a significant talent but also a work in progress – don’t expect to see much of him until next season as he works to hone is craft under Rollie Melanson’s watchful eye. But the real key to the deal could very well end up being Matthias.

It may seem strange to be reading that about a player with a career high of 14 goals at the NHL level, but we have seen and continue to see the importance of having a strong third line in the NHL. You don’t need to look any further than the 2010-11 Canucks – arguably the best team in club history. A huge part of that roster was the dominant third line of Raffi Torres, Manny Malhotra, and Jannik Hansen. Since then, he Canucks have been unable to replace Malhotra (and Torres too for that matter), and their third line has been a revolving door of both centers and wingers. Matthias is young and fills all of the boxes you would want from a third line forward – size, speed, strength, toughness, two-way play, and versatility. If Bo Horvat comes to camp ready, Matthias may slide over to the wing. And if Horvat isn’t ready, Matthias could be the long term checking center solution.

Daniel Sedin may not be a professional scout, but his early thoughts on Matthias are spot on.

“Solid, both ways. He’s a two-way player. He’s big, he’s strong, good on faceoffs. Good guy, too. He’s been blending in really well with this team and he’s going to be a big part of this team moving forward.”

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