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Panthers and Matheson agree on 8-year extension

The Florida Panthers announced an eight-year, $39 million contract extension with 23-year-old defenseman Mike Matheson on Monday and my initial reaction was ‘Who the Hell is Mike Matheson?’

I realize this is a bit naive. Matheson was a mainstay in the Panthers’ lineup last season and is a budding young defenseman with plenty of upside to his game after being selected 23rd overall in the 2012 NHL Draft.

But seriously, who the Hell is Mike Matheson and why is Florida making such a commitment to him?

This is becoming more and more of a problem in the NHL. Long, long-term commitments to young players that are relatively unproven. The Edmonton Oilers committing to Connor McDavid for eight years was no surprise; he is a bonafide superstar. The Buffalo Sabres completing an eight-year deal with Jack Eichel was justified; he will be a cornerstone of that franchise for a long time.

I’m just trying to wrap my brain around the Panthers--who are already committed to fellow defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle to eight- and seven-year contracts respectively, last season--hitching their wagon to a relatively unproven blueliner for such a long term.

Ekblad was a first-overall draft pick in 2014 and has quickly become one of the most promising up-and-coming D-men in the league. Yandle is an experienced veteran in the prime of his career. Those contracts, like the McDavid’s and Eichel’s of the league, are justified in term and value.

This Matheson contract will certainly be spun as a great deal for both sides. The Panthers lock down what they believe is a promising defenseman for the next decade at possibly a discounted rate. Matheson, on the other hand, gets a great price and commitment from his franchise.

However, this deal could just as easily flounder as it could flourish. It is a huge gamble. The aforementioned contracts of McDavid, Eichel, Ekblad, Yandle and other high-profile players are can’t miss-type deals. But Matheson and many, many others like him come with a high risk of failure for commitments like this.

Matheson came out of Boston College with great promise. Like Matheson, Brendan Smith came out of college hockey with plenty of hype and was a late first-round pick as well. Smith was a Hobey Baker finalist and at 23-years-old was expected to carry the torch on an aging blue line for the Detroit Red Wings. Four years later, he spent significant time as a healthy scratch and was traded by the Wings to the New York Rangers, where he still struggles to crack the everyday lineup.

Michael Del Zotto was selected 20th overall in 2009 and one year later, had the Rangers oozing with excitement over their 19-year-old defenseman after he scored nine goals and 37 points his rookie year. Now 27, Del Zotto has become an NHL journeyman having played with four different teams in the last five seasons.

Matheson will play in just his 87th career NHL game on Thursday. To make such a significant commitment to a player who's basically played one season is puzzling. Maybe the Panthers know something that I don’t, but a promise of this magnitude comes with way more red flags than it does guarantees. Matheson may very well prove to be a steady defenseman in the league and fulfill that eight-year deal, but waiting to see a larger sample size before making such a guarantee seems like a far less risky arrangement.

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