Here is a sentence I did not expect to be writing back in late January or early February: I miss Mike Matheson, and so do the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The defenseman was injured over the weekend when he was hit in the face with a puck and is expected to be sidelined on a “week-to-week” basis. That is a pretty open ended timeline and could be as short as one week and be back for the start of the playoffs, or multiple weeks and miss time well into the postseason.
Either way, the Penguins are missing a player that was at one time this season their most heavily scrutinized and criticized player.
When Matheson arrived in Pittsburgh he was already fighting an uphill battle.
The trade itself was a little controversial, not only because it sent away a wildly popular player (Patric Hornqvist) that had been a part of some significant moments in Pittsburgh, but also because of the impact the trade had on the salary cap. Matheson’s contract is massive. Colton Sceviour’s inclusion in the trade meant the Penguins were actually taking on money (something that seemed to escape former general manager Jim Rutherford at the time).
Then we saw him play, and our first impressions were not the best.
Missed defensive assignments. Out of position. Getting beaten badly one on one. There was not much to like about the way he was playing in those first few weeks. It looked like the Penguins had saddled themselves with an albatross of a contract that they were going to be stuck with for years.
Then things started to change.
He and Cody Ceci found some chemistry. They started to form an outstanding — and surprising — third defense pairing that nobody saw coming. Matheson himself started to play with confidence showed his skill. Other than Kris Letang, there is not another defenseman on the roster that is better at retrieving the puck in the defensive and single handedly skating it out of danger. You can see the skill and skating ability when he has the puck on his stick. While there still might be defensive shortcomings and moments of ugliness in the defensive zone, his season has turned into a positive.
Just look at how he played over the past 20 games before his injury.
Along with 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in those games, the Penguins were also posting strong numbers as a team with him on the ice.
They were controlling more than 52 percent of the total shot attempts. They were outchancing teams at a rate that was higher than almost every other defender on the team, and they held a 22-15 goals edge. The goals against numbers are a little on the high side, but he was helping to drive the offense and chances for and against. Along with that, the Penguins were allowing fewer scoring chances and high-danger chances with him on the ice than any other defender on the roster. Which points to the goals against numbers being more goaltending related than anything he was or was not doing. That is a positive, and it does show that Matheson has brought a different dimension to the Penguins’ defense.
Overall I just find him to be one of the most fascinating players on this team. Expectations were so low for him at the start of the season and only seemed to plummet even more once we actually saw him play.
Then after a while the consensus seemed to be, “hey ... this guy can skate. And hey... this guy has a lot of skill.” He would make plays with the puck in the offensive zone that few other defenders can make and he always seemed to be generating some kind of a scoring opportunity. It is not hard to see why the Panthers would want to invest so much in him and why the Penguins would want to acquire him. Along with that, I found that I was not really noticing him as much in the defensive zone. And that is a good thing. If you are noticing a defender in the defensive zone that is probably a bad sign, because they are either 1) getting beat, or 2) being forced to defend instead of playing with the puck.
At this point we still do not know when he will be back. I suspect there is not much rush to get him back for these two games against the Buffalo Sabres, but if he misses some time at the start of the playoffs that is going to leave a significant opening on the blue line that may not be adequately filled by Mark Friedman.
Still not sure where Matheson fits long-term, but in the short-term he has overcome a rough start to become a pretty significant member of the blue line. The sooner they get him back, the better.