Michael Matheson had never known what it was like to be anything less than a dominant hockey player, but now that he's been challenged on the ice the young defenseman headed to Boston College in the fall is right back on the path of dominance he's traveled his entire life.
Matheson left his home of Pointe-Claire, Que. -- a suburb in the western part of the island of Montreal -- around this time last year to go to Dubuque, Iowa to play in the United States Hockey League, foregoing his status as the top prospect available in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft to pursue his dream of playing collegiate hockey.
"It would be great to be able to go in the first round, but it is a very deep defensemen class. If it does happen that would be great, because it's a huge honor to be with the type of players being drafted this year. But at the end of the day it's just a draft, and it doesn't mean you're any more or any less of a player." -- Michael Matheson
But after years of dominating every level of minor hockey in Quebec, Matheson was faced with a situation in the USHL where his talent did not set him apart nearly as much as it had before, and the adjustment was a difficult one for him to make.
"Everything was new to him," Matheson's coach in Dubuque, Jim Montgomery, told NHL.com. "He was basically able to get away with his unbelievable skill his entire life, because his skill is at an elite level. But he was put in a situation where he was facing players who could match his skill.
"He had to adjust his game and understand he wasn't going to create a scoring chance on every shift."
Prior to going to Dubuque, Matheson had traveled to the Ivan Hlinka Tournament with Canada's under-18 team, where he got his first taste of humble pie when he rarely saw the ice as a seventh defenseman.
"It was still a pretty special experience playing for Canada and wearing the maple leaf in an international tournament," Matheson, the 30th-ranked North American skater on NHL Central Scouting's list, told NHL.com. "I made the team as a seventh defenseman, I knew that, and in a short setting like that where the camp and the tournament are in a really short time frame, it's pretty tough for a guy to really build his stock.
"If anything, it motivated me to try and catch those guys who were ahead of me and really develop my game so that it could be at that level."
Matheson admits that perhaps he was a little over-motivated at the start of the USHL season, and that may have contributed to him wanting to make a game-changing play on every shift.
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"I think I just had some bad habits that I developed in midget and when I was younger that got a little bit exposed in the USHL. I just had to learn to simplify my game and improve my decision making, especially," Matheson said. "Once I did that, I started putting up more points and it all snowballed. Once I was playing simpler and stronger defensively, it gave me more opportunities offensively.
"I think it's always been in my nature as a player to try to do too much. Being able to get that out of my game has been helpful, and I kind of have more of a mentality now that less is more, especially defensively."
Montgomery and his coaching staff played a big role in Matheson seeing the light, going so far as to sit him down a few times early in the season while discussing the adjustments he needed to make and showing him through video.
However, over at NHL Central Scouting, they were willing to give Matheson the benefit of the doubt considering how drastically his life had changed in a short time.
"We went in there knowing he was in a new league, in a different country, living away from home. A lot of players have expectations of what it's going to be like, but they do need to go around the block once or twice to figure it out," NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said. "His game came around in the second half. There were things we saw that we were looking for, especially on the defensive side of the game.
"It bodes well for him that he did figure it out."
Did he ever.
At the Christmas break, Matheson had four goals and four assists in 24 games, averaging 0.33 points per game. Following the Christmas break, Matheson played 29 games and scored seven goals with 12 assists, doubling his points per game average to 0.66. Then in the playoffs Matheson really took off, scoring four goals and adding an assist in five games, getting 21 shots on goal and proving once and for all that he had learned something about himself over the course of the season.
Montgomery believes strongly that Matheson will be able to apply what he learned in Dubuque as he continues to climb toward his ultimate goal.
"I think this adjustment he had to make, as he moves on to college and to pro hockey, this will be an experience he can draw from," Montgomery said.
One of the big reasons Matheson wanted to take the college route to the NHL was to give his body an opportunity to develop, and he says he put on 20 pounds over this past season in Dubuque as he looks ahead to his freshman season at Boston College.
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But first he has a big moment to experience this weekend at the NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, and he doesn't care if it's Friday night in the first round or Saturday in one of the later ones.
"I'm just going to try and enjoy the experience, it's a once in a lifetime experience," Matheson said. "It would be great to be able to go in the first round, but it is a very deep defensemen class. If it does happen that would be great, because it's a huge honor to be with the type of players being drafted this year. But at the end of the day it's just a draft, and it doesn't mean you're any more or any less of a player."
The one thing that will be enticing to NHL scouting directors this weekend is Matheson's skill set. He's a tremendous skater with a blistering shot who can put up numbers and have his team going from defense to offense in very short order.
"The style I play seems to be more and more of what the NHL is like," Matheson said. "It's becoming a really fast game, so you need to be able to skate, and for me to have some of the assets you need in the NHL is definitely a good thing."