There should be no doubt that the Florida Panthers are entering this season with an improved roster. There are, however, still some uncertainties when it comes to the team’s defensive core.
Mike Matheson is definitely an NHL defenseman. He’s coming off of back-to-back 27 point seasons and has played significant minutes for the Florida Panthers. Did he perform like a top-four defenseman last season? Not consistently. Does he need to improve defensively? Absolutely.
Matheson could start the year alongside Aaron Ekblad on the Panthers’ top pairing (but it will likely be Yandle). Newly appointed Coach Joel Quenneville may have other plans, but the Panthers lack quality left-side blueliners, and he may have his hands tied.
If he does indeed start the season with Ekblad, his positioning, as well as his defensive decision-making, needs to be better. Offensive production hasn’t been an issue for the 25-year-old defender, but, is offense from the back-end really what the Panthers are lacking? I would argue that it’s been one of the team’s smallest concerns.
With the point production of Keith Yandle and the goal totals of Ekblad, Florida has been a threat from the blue line for a few seasons now.
Just last season Yandle set a new personal record with 62 points while Ekblad passed Robert Svehla for most goals by a defender in franchise history (he now has 66 goals).
What they need is another reliable shutdown guy who can take on some more defensive responsibilities.
The first and most glaring hole in Matheson’s game last year was his giveaway totals. He had the most in the entire league at 135. That is simply inexcusable. To make matters worse, the Panthers had three players in the top ten for most turnovers: Ekblad was fourth-worst with 122 and Yandle was eighth with 110.
I should mention how poorly coached the team was and how much of a difference Coach Q should make, but wow. No organization can make the playoffs having three of their top four defensemen in that kind of a category.
After finishing the year with a rough -27 rating, I’m sure Matheson is looking to bounce back in a big way, and the Cats will need him too.
The signing of Anton Stralman certainly helps to shore up the blue line, but it likely won’t be enough if Matheson continues on the same trend as last year.
As I mentioned, the Panthers are thin on the left side, and Matheson has an opportunity to show what he’s made of to solidify his spot as a top-four guy with the Cats.
There would be a massive sigh of relief from fans if he can step up his game not only because it would help the team right away, but also long term. His contract is one that seemed like a gamble when it was signed.
On October 7th, 2017, Panthers’ brass swung for the fences and signed him to an eight-year deal worth $39M ($4.875 annually). That deal is beginning to look like a mistake.
With seven full seasons remaining, it looks like Matheson could be playing his final year in South Florida. If he shows up with the same weak game, watch for him to be traded.
If he does end up on the trading block, what would the return look like? Answer: not great.
Dale Tallon may have to throw in a sweetener like a draft pick or a prospect to coax a team into taking on the remaining years of his contract.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that with Matheson. He has shown flashes of what he’s capable of and is certainly young enough to turn his game around. Speed from the back end is a hot commodity in today’s NHL, and he unquestionably has heaps of that.
He has to tighten up in his own end, and he needs to do it quickly.
With some unanswered questions remaining on the Panthers blue line, there is no room for lazy defensive play. One obvious thing is that Mike Matheson needs a big year.