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The Penguins found a role for Mike Matheson and he is excelling in it

Mike Matheson is very quietly have an outstanding season for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since he joined the team Mike Matheson has been one of the most fascinating Pittsburgh Penguins, from the way he was acquired, to his contract, to his role, to his style of play which can most often be described as disorganized chaos with moments of brilliance.

They traded a wildly popular player (Patric Hornqvist) and two-time Stanley Cup champion for him, and in the process took on one of the wildest contracts in the league that — at the time — made him under contract longer than any other player on the roster (John Marino, of all people, has since passed him in that regard; but that is another post for another day). It was also part of a trade where the general manager that made it (Jim Rutherford) was not even aware that it added to the Penguins’ salary cap number due to the inclusion of Colton Scevior. It was peak Rutherford in every way.

When it came to Matheson’s play on the ice, year one in Pittsburgh was a very mixed bag. He scored probably two or three of the team’s best goals of the season and could display breathtaking skating ability with the puck that made it easy to see why the Florida Panthers would sign him to an eight-year contract. Then he would turn around be a mess in the defensive zone, turn the puck over, take a penalty, or all of the above on the same shift. If nothing else, it brought some serious entertainment to games.

This season, though, Matheson’s game has not only become way more consistent, he is also probably playing some of the best hockey of his career and has been excellent in his current role.

The glaring defensive zone mishaps have been few and far between, the “what on earth was that?” plays have mostly disappeared. While his overall offensive numbers are nothing that jump off the page, his underlying numbers have been among the best on the team (and in the league) among defensemen.

The table below looks at Matheson’s 5-on-5 performance this season in terms of shot attempt differential (CF%), shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60), expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60), expected goals differential (xGF%), scoring chances against per 60 minutes (SCA/60), scoring chance differential (SCF%), and goal differential (GF%), as well as his team ranks and league wide ranks among defensemen. Limited to defensemen that have played at least 100 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season,

The rankings are kind of stunning.

Mike Matheson 5-on-5 Performance This Season

Mike Matheson CF% CA/60 xGA/60 xGF% SCA/60 SC% GF%
Mike Matheson CF% CA/60 xGA/60 xGF% SCA/60 SC% GF%
Rating 57.1 48.2 2.25 58.0 24.9 57.8 56.2
Team Rank 1st out of 7 2nd out of 7 4th out of 7 1st out of 7 2nd out of 7 1st out of 7 2nd out of 7
League Rank 14th out of 245 22nd out of 245 66th out of 245 11th out of 245 52nd out of 245 10th out of 245 64th out of 245

There are two things — in my view — that are happening here. The first is that he and Chad Ruhwedel have been great together in their third pairing role and have posted some of the league’s best possession and scoring chance numbers as a duo. They have been a little unlucky together in terms of goal differential, but as far as third pairings go, they have been exactly what you want. Matheson also had a brief stay with Kris Letang when the blue line was severely undermanned and he also excelled there (which is also another post for another day on how Kris Letang is at his best when he is paired with players just like him instead of a defensive safety net).

The main thing though is that the Penguins are not asking him to be anything that he is not. They are not expecting him to be the focal point of the defense, or play consistent minutes against other team’s top players, or play key shutdown minutes. When he played in Florida he was being asked to play 22-23 minutes per game as a top-pairing defender. Even when he arrived in Pittsburgh at the start of last season there was an expectation for him to help solidify a top-four spot.

But this season it is more of a defined third-pairing role, where he is put into positions where he can play his game. For years there was always this narrative that the Penguins were able to fix certain defensemen and that they were rejuvinating their careers through some Sergei Gonchar type wizardry. I admit, I did buy into that for a bit. Justin Schultz, Trevor Daley, Jamie Oleksiak, even Cody Ceci a year ago. The reality is the Penguins did not really do anything to “fix”them. They just put them into roles they were better suited for. While Edmonton, Toronto, and Ottawa all expected players like Schultz and Ceci to be the focal points of their defense, the Penguins allowed them to come in and take on smaller roles, play their game as the players they are, and allowed them to succeed as they are.

Edmonton Justin Schultz and Pittsburgh Justin Schultz were the same player with the same skillset and same talents. One of them played in the wrong role on a bad team, the other played in the right role on a good team. Of course the latter player looked better.

The same thing is likely happening here with Matheson.

Maybe having another five years at a $4.875 million salary cap hit committed to a third-pairing defenseman is not ideal for a salary cap ceiling team in a salary cap league, but you can not ignore the value they are getting out of it and the defense as a whole this season. The Penguins have been one of the league’s best defensive teams this season with a group where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Letang is still great, and Dumoulin is still steady, but they are getting everything they can out of Matheson, Marino, Ruhwedel, and Marcus Pettersson. It is all working. Just play to your strengths.

[All data and rankings in this post via Natural Stat Trick]