The Panthers recalled Matheson from the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League last Friday and he made his NHL debut the next day in a 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets at BB&T Center. The 21-year-old played 14:47 in a pairing with veteran Steven Kampfer.
Matheson's recall was the latest step in a journey to South Florida that officially began with his selection in the first round (No. 23) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
After three seasons at Boston College, Matheson turned pro at the end of last season. This season, with a strong Portland team battling for positioning in the competitive Atlantic Division, Matheson took on a regular role on a deep blue line. In 43 games with the Pirates, he has five goals and nine assists.
Matheson also played five AHL games at the end of last season.
"That was a great opportunity to be able to do that," Matheson said. "It made a really big difference [for] this [season], especially in training camp, just being able to know that even though it was only five games, you had played some pro hockey. It gave me a bit of confidence that I belonged in training camp.
"[Turning pro] was definitely a tough decision because I enjoyed my time at Boston College so much. It was definitely hard to take that next step knowing that I would never be able to go back and spend the time that I did while I was there. But I thought that at the point I was at, it was the smartest decision for me, for my hockey career. ... I felt like I needed a new challenge."
He then moved on to the AHL, a league that has tested many young defensemen including Zdeno Chara, Shea Weber and P.K. Subban. Although Matheson said he has been able to deal with the speed of the AHL game, there has been a lot else to handle.
"I don't think that I would have been able to have my game progress [in college] as much as it has during this first half of the [season] in pro hockey," Matheson said. "I'd say the structure and the way the game is played is much different [than college hockey], and that has been the area of adjustment for me.
"You're playing against much better players, much smarter players. [Pro hockey] doesn't leave any room for mistakes as much as college does."
Matheson acknowledged that he had a reputation as an offensive defenseman whose defensive game needed work, but he has made becoming a well-rounded player his priority.
"I'd like to solidify that area of my game," Matheson said. "I think that in the past few years I've been able to make strides in those areas today. I used to be a high-risk, high-reward type of guy, and I think that I have been able to work on that pretty well the past few years [with] the coaches that I have had."
Panthers coach Gerard Gallant is dealing with injuries and the duration of Matheson's stint in Florida remains to be seen. But if and when Matheson returns to Portland, he will be jumping into race to the AHL playoffs.
Occupying third place in the Atlantic Division, the Pirates have managed to survive a season-high seven-game road trip (3-2-1-0) that ends this week. Portland is nine points out of first place, but also must fend off the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Hartford Wolf Pack and Providence Bruins.
Player development is paramount for NHL teams in the salary cap era. As a part of that process, Florida management insulated Matheson and a lot of his young teammates with a strong leadership core. From veteran goaltender Mike McKenna to captain Brent Regner to a well-balanced group of forwards, Matheson has been able to develop amid a stable environment.
That's why when the Pirates endured early-season struggles, panic did not set inside the dressing room.
"It almost surprised me how positive everyone stayed," said Matheson, who captained Boston College last season. "We would come off a really tough weekend, and at the next practice it was as if everybody had pushed it out of their minds and very calmly approached the next week. ... It was like, 'We have this to work on. Let's work on it.'
"I think that was one thing that I really did notice about the team. We clearly have really good leadership and guys on this team that are professional hockey players on and off the ice. They don't get rattled by a lot of things, and they just go about their business."