As the 23rd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, defenseman Mike Matheson is seen as somewhat of an anomaly among a burgeoning crop of talented prospects within the Florida Panthers organization.
Florida’s late-round reward for making a rare playoff appearance in 2012, Matheson’s selection stands as only the second time the Panthers have used one of their first-round picks on a player outside of the top 20 since 2006.
For this reason, Matheson’s road to the NHL has been slightly longer than that of his fellow first-round counterparts. Instead of making an immediate jump to the NHL, the 21-year-old blueliner spent three seasons at Boston College, captaining the Eagles as a junior, before finally turning pro at the end of last season.
An offensive-minded defenseman, Matheson recorded five goals and nine assists in 43 games with the AHL’s Portland Pirates before finally getting the call from the Panthers last Friday and making his long awaited NHL debut the next day in a 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets at BB&T Center.
"I thought he was great," head coach Gerard Gallant said of Matheson's debut. "He skated real well, moved the puck real well, and kept it simple.... He's got a lot of skill and a lot of talent. We really liked his first game."
Recently, FloridaPanthers.com’s Jameson Olive sat down with Matheson to discuss everything from what was on his mind during his debut to what it’s like being in a relationship with one of the top defenseman in women’s hockey.
OLIVE: It’s been a few days since you made your NHL debut. Now that you’ve had some time to step back and unwind, has the magnitude of that moment finally sunk in?
MATHESON: I guess it’s starting to settle in a little bit more. It almost felt, when I got down here, more like a training camp type of thing because the only time I’d been down here before was for development camp or training camp. Now that I’ve been here a little bit longer, it’s starting to feel like I’m a little bit more involved and part of the actual team. I’m fighting for a spot on the team, not just here for a camp.
OLIVE: I know you had a lot of family cheering you on in the stands. Were you able to celebrate with them afterwards?
MATHESON: No. We just went back to the hotel and hung out there.
OLIVE: That’s too bad, but I’m sure you received a lot of congratulatory texts, right?
MATHESON: Oh yeah, I got texts from a bunch of guys. A lot of guys from school, of course, from back home, pretty much everyone. It was pretty cool to see how happy everyone was for me.
OLIVE: On more than one occasion, Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has said that he believes it takes 300 NHL games for a defenseman to fully develop. How much does it help you to get that first one out of the way and begin that journey?
MATHESON: It makes a huge difference. I mean, even as the game went on I felt like I was getting more and more comfortable. After a couple shifts, I just felt like when I was getting the puck I wasn’t thinking so much about just getting rid of it, but actually trying to make decisions with the puck. I feel like the more experience that I have, the better I’ll be.
OLIVE: A lot of players talk about that “wow” moment during their first callup that let’s them know they’ve finally made it to the big time. Has that moment come for you yet?
MATHESON: I’m not sure that it has, really. I think it’s something that as I was growing up I was always dreaming of, but in the past couple years I’ve really tried to make that a reality. My mindset has always been that I want to be (in the NHL) and I think I deserve to be there. All of the work I’ve put in was to be able to get there. Like I said before the game, I didn’t really want to go out there and be a fan. I wanted to be an active participant in the game and make sure that I made a good impression.
OLIVE: While you were out on the ice, did you spend as much time watching your teammates as well as your opponents?
MATHESON: Yeah, of course, especially the guys on our team here. They’re so good at the things that they’re known for, so I definitely try to look to them and pick up all of the things that they do well.
OLIVE: The Panthers returned all seven of their regular defenseman from last season. After seeing that, did you think that you would still make it up to the NHL this season?
MATHESON: I tried not to put a timeline on it. I think, when I got sent down, it wasn’t expected, but I kind of had a realistic view on it coming into camp. Obviously, my goal was to make the team, but I was realistic about it knowing the numbers. When I got sent down, I just tried to switch my focus to working on my game and not necessarily worrying about when a callup would come or if it would even come throughout the entire year. I just really focused on what I had to do to get better. The less you think about it, the better it is for you. If you’re constantly thinking about when you’re going to get called up or if it’s even going to happen, it can weigh on you in a negative way.
OLIVE: You weren’t only working on your game down in Portland, but also your academics. What was it like juggling hockey and schoolwork while you finished earning your degree form Boston College this past year?
MATHESON: I was fortunate enough to get involved in an independent study in psychology, which is my major. I was able to do that throughout the whole first half of the year and finished it up early in December. It was four credits, which was all that I had left to reach my degree.
OLIVE: Did you have a lot of support from the guys in the locker room during that process?
MATHESON: Yeah, definitely. I think I was able to get a lot of the work done before I turned pro, though. I took a lot of classes during the summer the whole time I was there and I overloaded my course load for the last year, taking six classes instead of five. By the time I actually turned pro, I didn’t have much left to do, so even this year I didn’t have that much work to do so I was really able to focus on hockey.
OLIVE: A lot of players that leave college early never return to finish their degrees. Why did you put so much of an importance on making sure you left school with a diploma?
MATHESON: It’s always important, I think, to have a bit of a fallback plan. You really never know what can happen in pro hockey and in pro sports in general. I think it really allows you to focus on hockey knowing that chapter of my life is done and you can feel comfortable knowing that that’s done and really just focus on hockey and trying to make the best of it and trying to make the best of your career.
OLIVE: Your girlfriend, Emily Pfalzer, also recently turned pro and is currently starring for the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women’s Hockey League. What has sharing this experience been like for the both of you?
MATHESON: It’s been interesting, for sure. It’s great to be able to have that support between us, and knowing exactly what we’re going through pretty much. She graduated from Boston College last year, too. She also just found out that she made the national team for the Women’s World Championship last week, and then I got called up here, so it was a pretty cool week for us.
OLIVE: Do you ever find yourselves talking less as boyfriend and girlfriend and more as two defensemen?
MATHESON: That’s the thing, I can’t get anything past her. She knows when I play terrible and she’ll let me know about it [laughs].