One of Kent Hughes’ biggest priorities during the offseason was to find a new destination for Jeff Petry, who had requested a trade following a lengthy tenure with the Montreal Canadiens. Not only was the general manager able to move the entirety of the remaining three years on Petry’s contract in a July deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he was also able to acquire Michael Matheson, a perfectly capable top-four defenceman who brings a lot to the table, both on and off the ice.
Many Habs fans were somewhat surprised by the return that Hughes pursued and ended up getting in his negotiations with the Penguins considering that he’s actively trying to clear cap space. But Matheson is a much-needed veteran addition to the Canadiens’ young, inexperienced blue line and while expectations may not have initially been very high when the trade was announced, he will prove to be a valuable player for his hometown team.
Assuming a Leadership Role
Matheson’s importance was further accentuated on Thursday after it was announced that Joel Edmundson will be out indefinitely with a lower-body injury. The assistant captain’s absence pushes the 28-year-old up the depth chart, likely be the team’s no. 1 defenceman on the left side of the top pair.
Along with David Savard and Chris Wideman, he’ll be expected to lead by example, and log big minutes, while also serving as a mentor to the young defensive prospects he’ll be partnering with and who are still getting adjusted to life in the NHL. He knows that he’ll have to communicate with them regularly and help them along. The defence corps will be a work in progress throughout the season and Matheson will be the glue that keeps it together. He faced adversity early on in his career, grew significantly from the experience, and has more to give.
“He’s going to be counted on for a lot of minutes I’m sure,” said Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis. “I think he’s a guy that can play a lot of minutes, the way he skates. I think he’s going to have an opportunity here to really take his game to another level. One, definitely with his playing time. Two, I think with the brand that we want to play I think it really fits him.”
As a Quebec-born player who grew up in Pointe-Claire on the West Island just outside of Montreal cheering for the Habs, Matheson has a deep understanding of what it means to play for the iconic franchise and is very proud to wear the jersey. Combine that with his calm, laid-back personality and the transition to his new team should be seamless. Plus, the respect he commands in the dressing room will make it easy for him to assume a leadership role.
Ready for More Responsibilities
Matheson is fully aware of what awaits him during his first season with the Habs and he’s ready for the challenge. As St. Louis mentioned, his arrival is an indication of the identity that management wants their revamped defence corps to have. A good puck mover who skates well and has strong offensive instincts. While he can simply be viewed as Petry’s replacement, his value goes deeper than that.
Matheson is younger, cheaper, and will be a crucial part of the Canadiens’ rebuild for at least the next four years. He’ll be relied upon in several facets of the game including the power play and ensuring an effective transition from the defensive end into the offensive zone. Given his strengths, it’s not hard to envision that he’ll be Montreal’s leading scorer on defence in 2022-23.
“I have the chance to play a bigger role here than in Pittsburgh,” said Matheson. “It’s exciting, it’s a challenge and I’ll have to perform. I think I’m ready. With the Penguins, I found my rhythm. I was playing well defensively and not pushing too hard offensively. I was using my skills to generate plays, not taking my foot off the pedal. I understood when to pick my moments.”
Matheson wasn’t the Habs’ most attractive offseason acquisition, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an important piece of the puzzle that Hughes is assembling, and he’s determined to prove his worth throughout his tenure in Montreal, beginning in training camp over the next three weeks.