Pittsburgh Penguins: Mike Matheson Brings Offense, Struggles Defensively
For better or worse, there may not be a more entertaining general manager to watch than Pittsburgh Penguins’ own Jim Rutherford.
Always one of the more active general managers in the league, Rutherford has already pulled the trigger on a couple of deals before the offseason has even started, and they’ve both been on the bigger side of deals.
They first reacquired Kasperi Kapanen, who was Rutherford’s first ever draft pick with the Penguins, from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal that involved Pittsburgh’s top pick in the upcoming NHL draft.
Next, they traded Nick Bjugstad to the Minnesota Wild in a move that can only be described as a salary dump, as the conditions worked in the deal leave it open for the Penguins not to get anything in return.
Now, they moved another big-name player, trading Patric Hornqvist to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Mike Matheson and Colton Sceviour.
Pens Lose Fan Favorite
Hornqvist was acquired in one of Rutherford’s first big trades, along with Nick Spaling came to Pittsburgh with James Neal heading to Nashville.
The Swedish born Hornqvist, who was the last pick of the same draft that produced Sidney Crosby, quickly became a fan-favorite in Pittsburgh for his gritty heart-and-soul play, as well as his penchant for scoring big goals.
In his six years with the Penguins, Hornqvist scored 132 goals and topped at least 20-goals in at least four of them. Unfortunately after scoring 29 in 2017-2018 (a season that also netted him a contract extension), Hornqvist saw his goal output drop to just 18 the following season.
He bounced back this past season, and was on pace to register yet another 20-goal season when COVID-19 hit and the season was halted.
But with his term (three more years) and cap hit ($5.3 million), he was a prime candidate to get moved by the Penguins in an attempt to free up space to make a signing elsewhere.
Matheson Base Bio And Stats
A former first-round pick, Matheson spent three years at Boston College honing his craft with the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Alex Tuch and Kevin Hayes before turning pro.
Since then, Matheson has played 299 games with the Panthers, registering 33 goals, 58 assists for 91 total points. He scored ten goals, and totaled 27 points during 2017-2018 in what was statistically one of his best season (also scored 27 a year later).
At 26-years old, Matheson is about to enter the third year of an eight year, $39 million contract that carries a cap hit of $4.875 million per season.
While he has averaged nine goals per 82 games played during his career, a respectable number for a defenseman, is that enough to warrant a deal that in the end didn’t free up cap space but instead added to it?
Matheson: Self Offensive Generator, Suffers In Own End
With Justin Schultz heading to free agency, the Penguins are losing one of their more offensive minded defensemen, so the addition of Matheson makes sense.
Matheson has been better than average player in creating offense for himself over the course of his career. Of all defensemen with at least 4,000 minutes at 5v5 since 2015-2016 (134 overall), ranks at the top in scoring rate and goal expectancy, as well as unblocked shot attempts.
He has best excelled at taking the puck away from the opposition, ranking at the top in takeaways per 60 minutes. But the down side of that, he also ranks towards the bottom in giveaways, and doesn’t do much in creating for others at 5v5.
*Percentiles measured off of numbers from Natural Stat Trick, based off of defensemen with at least 4,000 minutes at 5v5 since 2015-2016.
Adding Matheson certainly brings in some extra offense from the blue line, which is important with Schultz heading to free agency. He can certainly create for himself, grading out far better than average in actual and expected goals scored.
He also has shown an ability to get the puck through traffic, also finishing better than average in unlocked shot attempts, and only Jaccob Slavin has a higher takeaway rate than Matheson.
On the flip side of things, he hasn’t been overly great at generating offense for others, and has turned the puck over at a higher rate than everyone but Brent Burns and Jeff Petry.
While Matheson is perfectly capable of creating for himself, he has been a below average player in influencing play while on the ice.
Matheson has struggled to drive action in the right direction his entire career, gives up a lot of shots and his one positive influence (GF/60) is vastly overshadowed by how many times the puck ends up in the back of his own net.
His expected goal share, which takes into account shot type and location, is among the worst since he entered the league. Having played his entire career at a better actual rate than what is expected is a good sign, especially considering that he will be joining a better team in Pittsburgh, but the defensive numbers will always be worrisome.
The Great Debate: How Does The Lineup Shape Up?
So this is where things get interesting, as for as bad Matheson has been in his own end and influencing play when is on the ice, Jack Johnson himself has been widely crowned as one of the worst defensemen in the NHL, especially by the analytics community.
Now with five left-handed defensemen signed for not only this season, but on multi-year deals, the Penguins have the literal definition of a log-jam at the position. Not only do they have too many options, they paying a premium for a position they can only dress three players at per-game.
Barring a trade, which would be the most logical thing to unfold, Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson would man the team’s top-four with Matheson, Johnson, and Juuso Riikola all fighting for at least one spot available.
One could flip to the right side, but that doesn’t seem ideal and the Penguins have been rumored to be after Chris Tanev when free agency begins.
Trading Pettersson would actually net a return, as moving Johnson would likely take giving up an extra asset to make it happen. The New York Rangers attached a second round pick for the Detroit Red Wings (who aren’t yet at the cap floor) for one year of Marc Staal, so what would it take to take on three more years of Johnson?
Rutherford has come out publicly and said that Pettersson and Dumoulin are off limits, but if the right offer presents themselves, or they can’t move Johnson’s contract, they may have to explore it.
A look at how the two have fared over the past two seasons, during Johnson’s time in Pittsburgh. Offensively, Matheson certainly looks capable of being an improvement of the black-hole of offense that Johnson has been able to help generate.
The issue still remains that Matheson has been almost as bad, if not worse than Johnson in just about all defensive metrics.
What good is that extra little bit of offense if it is immediately taken away with a goal scored against? Matheson sitting in the 0.6% percentile in goals against rate wasn’t a typo. Only Filip Hronek of the Red Wings has a worst GA/60 than Matheson.
Hronek plays the Red Wings who had one of the worst seasons in the last couple decades. Matheson and the Panthers made the playoffs this past season. Big difference there.
Losing Hornqvist is unfortunate, mostly in ways that can’t be quantified. He was a fan favorite and a clubhouse leader.
Moving him though, for many reasons that can be counted, was the right way to go. Whether it be his cap hit (and years remaining) or the fact that his style of play doesn’t really play long-term at his age, moving Hornqvist was probably something that had to happen this offseason.
The Penguins wanted to get younger and faster, which put the writing on the wall for someone like Hornqvist.
While adding Matheson the Penguins certainly acquired another threat in the offensive zone, this time from the blue line, his value on that end of the ice just doesn’t make up for the inefficiencies he brings about in his own end.
How do you feel about the trade? How does Matheson fit into the lineup, and who is the most likely to get moved? What does the opening lineup look like if you don’t take Rutherford’s word for it? Let me know in the comment section below and follow me on Twitter @AJ_Murfy