The crappy thing about first impressions is you only get one of them. If it is not a good one, that is a tough stink to shake off in any setting. Sports. Work. Life. Anything.
That brings us to new Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson.
We all saw it. I saw it. You saw it. It was obvious. Matheson’s first game as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday evening was, well, not good. He was on the ice for three goals against, in the penalty box for a fourth, and saw the Penguins give up several more high danger chances.
It was probably the worst possible start for his Penguins career because he was already coming in here with low expectations for several reasons. The reputation as a mistake-prone defender defensively, the fact he was acquired in a trade involving a wildly popular (and productive) player that won championships here, and because his contract has the potential to be another albatross on defense just as the Penguins were jettisoning a similar contract. So coming into the first game and leaving a turd in the punch bowl is not exactly what you want to see.
Even with that, I have been a little more optimistic on Matheson than most and I still think there is the potential for something useful here.
The contract is a problem. He is a flawed player. But I do not think the situation is beyond salvageable.
For one, the first week or two of the season is always full of overreactions, over-analysis, and a lot of jumping to conclusions. You wait so long for the new season, you build up all of this anticipation, and then when the first game looks like that it is easy to feel disappointment.
Just as if the Penguins had won 6-3 with Matheson recording three points the initial reaction would have been in the complete opposite direction (hey maybe this guy is better than we thought!).
This season there is going to be even more danger in that. The first week or two of this season is going to be a mess across the league. Honestly, it might be the most exciting hockey we see all year. These teams and players had about five minutes to get ready in training camp, had zero preseason games to get up to speed, and everything is still haphazardly thrown together on the ice. No one is structured, no one is in their system yet, everyone is still trying to feel everything out. That has to be especially true for players on new teams.
Now, I know the limitations with Matheson. I know the issues (contract). But now that he is here and on the roster I still think there is something useful here. Based on Friday’s morning skate it seems he is going to be on a third-pairing alongside Chad Ruhwedel, which I am okay with. If an otherwise flawed player has a useful skill or strength I think it is possible to shelter them in the right role and maximize the thing they do well.
The problem with sheltering a player like, say, Jack Johnson, is there really was not a strength you could focus on to put into a position to succeed. At least not in the Penguins system and the way they want to play. Matheson is not entirely like that. He has skills that could — at least in theory — translate to the Penguins style of play. He is a great skater. He has skill with the puck. He has some offensive instincts. His best role is almost certainly as a third-pairing defender that you can put into offensive situations. Even though the tail end of his career in Pittsburgh was a struggle, the Penguins found a way to maximize this type of skillset for a couple of years in Justin Schultz.
Is it the best use of salary cap resources to invest that much in a third-pairing defender? Of course not. But that is the hand the Penguins dealt themselves and now they have to figure out a way to make it work.
The debut was bad. There might be some rocky moments throughout the season, especially early. But I still think if in the right role they can get something useful here.