Mike Matheson understands what it’s like to join a rebuilding team like the Montreal Canadiens, and the defenseman says he’s ready to support the young players he’ll see next season.
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The Habs acquired the 28-year-old with a fourth-round pick in the 2023 draft from the Pittsburgh Penguins in return for the defenseman Jeff Petry and attacker Ryan Poehling Saturday. Matheson is going from a team that has been in the playoffs for 16 straight seasons to an openly reset roster where he will play with young fullbacks like Justin Barron (20 years), Jordan Harris (22) and maybe even Kaiden Guhle (20), and young forwards like Nick Suzuki (22), Cole Caufield (21) and Kirby Dash (21).
« All these young players who are establishing themselves in the NHL are there for a reason, » Matheson said Monday. They don’t necessarily need someone, because they have earned the position they are in by achieving it on their own. That said, I think it can be very helpful to have someone to turn to in order to ask questions. »
The veteran of seven seasons and 417 career games in the NHL has himself inspired the leaders at the Penguins in his own journey – the Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Evgeny Malkin.
“I hope I can help pass on the culture they created in Pittsburgh,” continued Matheson. It is something very special. That’s what it takes to win in this league. I’m not saying I’m going to be a Sid or a Kris or a « Geno » for the youngsters here because they’re better than me, but if there’s anything I can do to help them or teach them a lesson of what I accomplished earlier in my career, it will be great. It will help the team. »
Matheson is coming off the best season of his career. Set career-highs in goals (11), assists (20), points (31) and plus/minus (plus-12) in 74 games with the Penguins, adding six points, including five assists , in seven games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The picture wasn’t always so rosy for Matheson, who was drafted in the first round (23rd overall) by the Florida Panthers in 2012. Before his three-year rookie contract expired, the Panthers signed him signed a gigantic eight-year contract extension, a poisonous gift that came with its share of excessive expectations. Two years after the deal went into effect, the Panthers traded him to the Penguins on September 24, 2020.
“I wasn’t living up to expectations, I was frustrated with myself and I didn’t have a lot of confidence,” admitted Matheson. I was not playing as I expected.
“Once I got to Pittsburgh, I was able to fit into a different game system where I was given the chance to use my skating a little more. It allowed me to be in the face of my opponents more often, rather than staying behind. When I’m passive, I don’t exploit my strengths. […] I had more success in Pittsburgh for that reason, and I want to take that to Montreal. »
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For the Penguins, Matheson was the fourth most-used defenseman, but he averaged less than 20 minutes per game (18:48). Considering that he is now the highest paid defenseman in the Habs ($4.875 million per season) and that he will evolve with several young associates, we should probably expect to see Matheson being used more often in Montreal and rubbing shoulders with a competition a little tougher night after night. His replacement, Petry, was the Canadiens’ second most-used player last season (22:07). A challenge that the main interested party welcomes with open arms.
“My time in Pittsburgh in a good system allowed me to develop, argued Matheson. I was able to see a player like Kris Letang and see what he does every day in training. I consider myself ready to step forward and assume these responsibilities. It’s a challenge, and I want to take on a challenge like this. »
The shock quickly gave way to enthusiasm
A native of Pointe-Claire, in the West Island of Montreal, Matheson admitted that he was taken aback by the transaction, but that the shock quickly gave way to excitement.
« I wasn’t expecting a transaction, but when I found out I was going to Montreal, it was pretty special, » said Matheson, who speaks flawless French. “I grew up in Montreal and learned to play hockey watching the Montreal Canadiens. I was a big fan, and with my family, we watched all the games. To think that I’m going to put on this sweater every night at the Bell Center is very special. »
This dream of playing for the team of his childhood is precisely what makes Matheson absolutely not afraid to join a team in reconstruction, which took the last place in the NHL last season (22-49- 11, 55 points).
“We saw what they did at the end of last season, and it was exciting even for someone who doesn’t play for the team, but comes from Montreal, said Matheson. I was happy for the team. Being part of the Canadiens was a dream for me. »