Editor's Note: Jim Leitner is the Sports Editor at The Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, IA and is a frequent contributor to USA Hockey Magazine and USHL.com. This article originally ran in The Telegraph Herald on March 23, 2016. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his Local Sports and Dubuque Fighting Saints coverage HERE.
Everything happened so fast, Michael Matheson barely had time to process it all. And that might have been a good thing.
The Florida Panthers promoted the former Dubuque Fighting Saints standout defenseman to the National Hockey League on Feb. 20 to fill a temporary void left by injuries. The 6-foot-2, 192-pound defenseman played two games before returning to Portland (Maine) of the American Hockey League.
Matheson became the third former Dubuque player to reach the NHL since the team returned to the United States Hockey League in 2010-11. He joined Buffalo’s Zemgus Girgensons and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau.
“It was everything I could have imagined it to be and even more,” Matheson, 22, said Tuesday. “I got the phone call at 11:30 on a Thursday night, and it was the absolute last thing on my mind. It was kind of a shock. The next thing I knew, I was getting up the next morning, hopping on a flight to Florida, and I was playing a game the day after that. It was surreal.
“It all happened so quickly, but it was a bit of a blessing that it did. I was able to get down there, get into the thick of things and focus on hockey instead of worrying about anything that could get in the way. I was able to treat it like any other game and not let anything distract me from playing hockey that night.”
In his NHL debut, Matheson played 14:47 in 20 shifts and registered one shot, one hit and one penalty in a 3-1 home victory over Winnipeg. The spotlight at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., that night focused on teammate Jaromir Jagr, who scored twice to pass Brett Hull for third place on the NHL’s all-time goal scoring list.
“I thought he was great,” Panthers 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.”
A week later, Matheson played 15:48 and took two shots in 19 shifts during a 3-1 loss at Minnesota. The Panthers, who lead the NHL’s Atlantic Division, returned him to their top minor league affiliate for more seasoning after acquiring Czech defenseman Jakub Kindl from the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL trade deadline.
The move shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, himself a former NHL defenseman and Chicago Blackhawks general manager, has often said it takes 300 pro games for a defenseman to fully develop.
Matheson, the 23rd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, signed with the Panthers last spring after earning all-America honors in his junior season at Boston College. The Pointe Claire, Quebec, native played five games in the AHL with San Antonio, then the organization’s top affiliate, after signing and registered a pair of assists and eight penalty minutes.
In 47 games at Portland this season, Matheson has six goals, 15 points, 28 penalty minutes and a plus-16 rating. Despite a rough start which had him at minus-10, he now shares the team’s plus/minus lead with right wing Wayne Simpson.
“This year has been very similar to the year I played in Dubuque,” Matheson said. “I started off a little slower because I was still getting used to a new league and a new environment. It takes time to get used to a new pace and a new style of game.
“At first, I wasn’t playing as well as I’d like. But I’ve been able to sit back, watch video, work on my game and control what I can control, and that’s working on the elements of my game that needed to get better.”
And he stopped thinking about everything else going on within the Panthers’ organization. That included injuries, trades at the NHL level, trades at the AHL level and the promotions and demotions around him.
“All of that stuff is completely out of your control,” Matheson said. “It’s easy to let that bother you. But the best thing you can do is focus on your own game and hone in on what you need to do to get better. Once I started doing that, I started playing better and, in turn, I ended up getting the call-up.
“It’s weird that it works out that way. But, the less you think about getting called up, the better position you put yourself in to be called up. It’s difficult to get used to that mentality, but, once you do, it makes life a lot easier, for sure.”
Matheson, who earned his diploma from Boston College in the fall, admits he has plenty more to learn before becoming a permanent fixture in a young Panthers organization. But the brief call-up to the NHL worked wonders on his psyche.
“It definitely gave me a lot of motivation and boosted me in the right direction, because it showed me I can play at that level,” Matheson said. “It reassured me. Even though I’m back in the AHL for the rest of the regular season and playoffs, I know what I’m doing is working.
“At the end of the year, I won’t have those questions about whether or not I can play at that level. Getting my feet wet will help me for the rest of this season, for training in the summertime and for when I go to training camp in the fall. It gives me a lot of confidence moving forward.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.