Making the Transition
Monday May 7, 2012
Following an adjustment period, Mike Matheson found his rhythm with the Dubuque Fighting Saints and became one of the top defensemen in the USHL.
Matheson adjusts his game to become a potential 1st-round NHL Draft pick
By Jim Leitner, TH sports editor • email@example.com
Mike Matheson sat down in the spring of 2010 and weighed the pros and cons of two distinctly different options for his promising hockey career.
The popular choice for the defenseman from Pointe-Claire, Quebec, would have been to stay close to home and play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, which features a grueling, professional-style schedule. As a sure-fire first-round draft pick, he could have expected a hefty signing bonus that would have disqualified him from his second option.
But the idea of playing NCAA Division I hockey intrigued the then-16-year-old. With a less-demanding schedule, he figured he could mature mentally and physically with significantly more practice time and weight-room sessions, not to mention a quality education.
Matheson decided on the second option, which led him to the Dubuque Fighting Saints in September. He spent this season in the United States Hockey League to transition from Under-18 Midget AAA hockey in Quebec to a waiting scholarship at reigning national champion Boston College.
After struggling through the first half of a USHL season filled with high expectations, Matheson developed into a dominant defenseman in his final two months in Dubuque. And, in a little more than six weeks, he might join Saints captain Zemgus Girgensons as a first-round pick at the NHL Draft in Pittsburgh.
“When you look at the improvement I made throughout the whole season and into the playoffs, it shows you how good a program we have here in Dubuque and how good of a league the USHL is,” Matheson said. “This season definitely reinforced my decision. At the same time, watching BC go all the way this year and the way they develop their defensemen reinforces it even more.
“With the help of the coaching staff here, my game just got better and better, and, with that, I became a lot more confident. All of that kind of snowballed together in the second half of the season.”
Matheson registered just four goals and eight points in 24 games before the Christmas break. He returned to Dubuque with a different outlook on the game and finished with seven goals and 19 points in his final 29 contests. In five playoff games, Matheson scored four goals and added an assist.
“His draft stock just skyrocketed the last 15 games of the season, so I can see him being drafted anywhere from 15th to 30th overall,” Saints head coach and general manager Jim Montgomery said. “Based on the comments I heard from NHL people, there were a lot of question marks about him in the first half of the season.
“But, when those same scouts came through my door in the last two months, it was more like, ‘Wow. Wow. Wow.’ I credit the young man for his coachability and his desire to be great. He learned how to be a dominant defenseman this year, and he’s going to be rewarded for it.”
POETRY IN MOTION
Jack Barzee, of the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, fell in love with Matheson’s game when he watched him last summer in Calgary during Hockey Canada’s tryout camp for the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Matheson made the team and helped the Canadians win the gold medal for the fourth consecutive year.
“He’s the type of player I gravitate toward just because of his presence,” said Barzee, who coached in Dubuque in the early 1980s before moving on to scouting. “He’s an extremely gifted young player.
“He’s what you might call ‘poetry in motion’ when it comes to skating. He’s a beautiful skater with deceptive speed; he gets to top speed real quick.”
Matheson’s fluid and athletic skating style features tight pivots and edge control. He also blends strength and power with agility and lateral quickness.
“I love the way he shoots the puck, too,” Saints associate head coach Joe Coombs said. “I bet half of the goals he scored this year, the goalie had no time to react because he has such a quick release. He shoots like a pro. You don’t teach that. That’s a gift.”
At the Midget AAA level, those attributes made Matheson a dominant player in a hockey-mad province. Prognosticators heaped praise on him as a can’t-miss pro. Unfortunately, his skill level led to bad habits.
“He’s always been a high-risk, high-reward kind of player because he could beat people athletically,” said Rod Matheson, Mike’s father. “He’d always be taking chances he didn’t need to take. He could make a silly move and lose the puck, then turn around and catch the guy and take it right back.
“The coaching staff in Dubuque achieved great things in terms of getting him to figure out where he could take those risks.”
Matheson quickly realized he couldn’t rely on his athletic ability to beat opponents in the USHL.
“Here, if you make a mistake as the last guy back, the puck’s in the back of the net in a second,” Mike Matheson said. “That was one of the biggest adjustments I had to make. The USHL is a lot higher level, and there’s a huge difference in the size and speed of the guys you’re playing against.”
Matheson wasn’t alone in his early struggles. Very few players enjoy immediate success after graduating from Midget or high school hockey to the USHL.
“It’s tough for a lot of guys to adjust to the speed right away, and it can be really frustrating,” said Saints second-year goaltender Matt Morris, a University of Maine recruit who will play against Matheson in the Hockey East conference next season. “But Mike has such a great work ethic. He’ll go far in hockey because he works so hard at it.”
THE TURNING POINT
The transition did not go smoothly in the first few months of the season. The USHL can quickly humble a player with gaudy statistics at a lower level.
“It’s hard when you’ve been the best player wherever you’ve played and you’ve had success doing it a certain way,” Montgomery said. “It’s hard to understand why you’re struggling.
“He didn’t have a tough time believing what we were teaching him, but he had a tough time believing he couldn’t get away with what he’d been doing his whole life. It takes a while for some players to change their habits when those habits have given them success. I have to give Mike a lot of credit, because he did change those habits. He’s a student of the game who started to see the value of being in better position.”
Montgomery, Coombs, and team consultant Grant Standbrook all worked with Matheson on the technical aspects of his game, both on the ice and during lengthy video sessions. Matheson also studied video at home.
The rookie didn’t like the results he saw in the first half of the season. So, when he returned home to suburban Montreal for the holiday break, he took an honest look at his deficiencies.
“Over time, I feel like I was getting more and more used to the League,” Matheson said. “But going home for that week let me regroup a little bit. I watched a lot of video to see where I could improve my game.”
He also spent quality time with his family, which kept him grounded.
“That’s when Mike started to realize his development is more of a process,” Rod Matheson said. “He realized it’s not all about beating people athletically. He started using his technique rather than thinking he could just outskate people.”
Matheson saw the value in playing the angles on defense and closing gaps on rushing forwards. His anticipation dramatically improved.
“Being in better position led to him having the puck more, which led to more offense,” Montgomery said. “You give him time and space, and he’s going to do damage. From Christmas on, his confidence and decision making got better and better. That’s why you saw a dominant player the last 15 games.”
MATURING BOTH ON AND OFF THE ICE
Matheson arrived in Dubuque in early September with his older brother, Kenny Matheson, a 20-year-old forward who played Junior hockey in Brockville, Ontario the previous season. Kenny helped his brother adjust to playing away from home for the first time in his career.
But Kenny didn’t play a key role with the Saints in his final season of Junior eligibility. He contributed only a goal and two assists in 25 games while college interest in him declined. Kenny returned to Brockville in January, played a considerably bigger role and earned a playing opportunity next season at Hamilton College in upstate New York.
Shortly after Kenny’s departure, the Saints acquired forward Milos Bubela, who had just represented Slovakia at the World Junior Championships in Alberta. Bubela spoke very little English and moved in with Matheson’s billet parents, Don and JoAnne Gibson.
“Mike and Kenny aren’t just brothers, they’re best friends, and they really leaned on each other,” JoAnne Gibson said. “When Kenny left and Milos came, Mike became the leader in terms of showing Milos what he had to do and how he could adjust to playing hockey in the United States. That put Mike in a position of leadership, and he really embraced it. It was really neat to watch Mike mature as the season went on. As his game improved, he gained so much more confidence in himself.”
Matheson also matured physically. Under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach Jim Romagna, he added nearly 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2 frame after reporting to Dubuque at 175 pounds.
“That was one of the big reasons why I chose to come here and go the college route,” Matheson said. “I wanted to let my body mature the right way instead of just being in more of a pro environment like the (QMJHL), where there isn’t as much time to get into the gym.”
“When we were making the decision, my dad and I looked at the average schedule for a team in the Q, and there just isn’t a lot of time to practice or lift. Defense is more of a tactical game. There’s a lot more to learn. And I wanted to take the time to let my body mature.”
THE NEXT STEP
Before he sets foot on the Boston College campus in the fall, Matheson will take another significant step in his hockey development. A few short weeks after the NHL Draft, he will be invited to his pro team’s prospects camp and play against previous draft picks and minor leaguers. The camp will not jeopardize his NCAA eligibility.
“Going to Calgary’s prospects camp last summer, that’s what really got me ready for this year,” said former Saints standout John Gaudreau, the national freshman of the year at Boston College and a fourth-round pick of the Flames in 2011. “I don’t think I would have done half as well as I did if I wouldn’t have gone to the prospects camp.”
“The guys are bigger and stronger than guys in the USHL, and you’re competing against guys who are already one step away from the NHL. Mike will be one of the younger guys there, and it’ll be a great learning tool for him.”
At Boston College, Matheson will learn from one of the top defensive minds in Division I hockey. Greg Brown, a former Olympian and NHL defenseman, works with the blueliners on head coach Jerry York’s staff.
“For a young guy, Greg Brown has an incredible record of developing defensemen,” Barzee said. “No question, Matheson’s decision to go to Boston College is a plus with NHL teams. It gives a team a four-year window. They can afford to be patient with him. If he comes along faster, they’ll sign him to a pro contract earlier.”
Matheson hasn’t completely closed the door on playing in the QMJHL. Moncton acquired his rights from Shawinigan in January.
“Personally, I’m pretty well set on BC. The only way I would go to the Q is if the team that drafted me really wants me to go,” he said. “I’ve been trying to keep my doors open in case that does happen. But, to be honest, with the reputation BC has for developing defensemen and the success they’ve been having lately, I don’t think an NHL team will have a problem with me going there.”
After the progress Matheson made in Dubuque, it would be hard to second-guess his decision-making.