CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson got an early jump on this season when he participated in the rookie tournament over the weekend at the Panthers practice facility, marking the occasion with a highlight-reel goal in the opening game.
It was simply Matheson picking up where he left off.
By the time the Panthers lost their Eastern Conference First Round Series against the New York Islanders in April, Matheson was playing on Florida's first defense pair with Aaron Ekblad, and weeks later was helping Canada win the IIHF World Championships in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Matheson was named the tournament's most outstanding defenseman (he had six points in 10 games).
Matheson, 22, would seem headed for a significant role on the revamped Panthers defense this season, but he's not taking anything for granted.
"I think I put myself in a good position, opening the door to possibly have an opportunity to earn a spot on the roster," Matheson said. "I think last year, the roster was pretty much set for the most part coming into the year, and I think there's more availability throughout the roster to be able to earn a spot. So now it's up to me to continue playing well and make sure I'm earning it.
"I'd say my main focus is just to earn a spot on the roster for opening night. I think that I just need to continue playing the way that I know I can play."
Matheson, the No. 23 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, is coming off his first season as a pro after playing three years at Boston College. He made his NHL debut in February, was sent down to Portland of the American Hockey League and then called up in time for the Panthers' regular season finale.
Matheson (6-feet-2, 192 pounds) was a healthy scratch for the Game 1 of the playoff series against the Islanders before being inserted into the lineup and eventually being paired with Ekblad.
Matheson's play against the Islanders earned praise from just about everybody in the Panthers organization and offered a glimpse of his potential.
"He came in seamlessly and shined," said Bryan McCabe, the Panthers' director of player development. "He played a ton of minutes in high-pressure situations and rode that all the way to the World Championships with a lot of good players and won a title for his country. We're expecting big things out of him this year and I'm sure he's got the same goals. He's really going to help put this team over the top.
"He just keeps growing. From where he was a couple of years ago to where he is now, it's an amazing transformation [with] the confidence he exudes, the time he puts in on and off the ice. He crushed our testing here. He's a hockey player through and through. He lives, eats, breathes it, sleeps it. He's come a long way. His confidence level right now is just soaring."
Heading into training camp, the expectation was that veteran newcomer Keith Yandle would join Ekblad on Florida's top defense pair, but Matheson could be in line for a top-four role.
Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk also are newcomers to a defense group that includes Alex Petrovic, Steven Kampfer and 2016 midseason acquisition Jakub Kindl. Another defense candidate is Matheson's former Boston College teammate Ian McCoshen, who was chosen by the Panthers in the second round (No. 31) of the 2013 Draft and signed an entry-level contract in June.
Regardless of whether McCoshen can earn a roster spot this season, he and Matheson are important pieces for Florida's future.
"It definitely was a bit of a rush going from not in the lineup, to in the lineup and then two games later in the starting lineup," Matheson said. "But at the end of the day, that's what I was wishing I could do through the whole season while I was down in the minors, always wishing that I could get an opportunity, get a chance to play. Once I was given that chance, I wanted to just make the most of it."
Matheson did just that, and did it again at the World Championships. As he prepares for a new season, he has no plans to stop now.