The thought Mike Matheson put into choosing the college route a year and a half ago speaks to why he's got such a bright future.
The 17-year-old Dubuque Fighting Saints defenceman is considered one of the USHL's top prospects for the NHL entry draft. That is no shock to those who recall Matheson was the consensus top prospect for the QMJHL entry draft two seasons ago before giving himself "more buffer room" to develop his body, mind and game by focusing on the NCAA route. What's surprising is the analysis that went into the decision.
"We actually took a QMJHL schedule from one of the teams that for the most part, has about the least amount of travel in the league," says Matheson, a potential NHL first-round choice who's committed to Boston College for next season. "And we just looked at how many days were a reasonable lift day in the gym. Not a day before a game, a day of a game or day after a game, basically, to get a solid lift in. There really wasn't that many.
"Then you look at the NCAA. They do lifts all the time and have more practice time. I know they don't have as many games as the Q does, but I thought that as a defenceman it takes longer than it does for a forward to get to the NHL. There's a bit more to learn."
Abjuring major junior meant the Pointe-Claire, Que., native stayed in AAA midget hockey an extra season with the Lac St-Louis Lions while completing high school at home. So far with Dubuque, he's shown hints of his high upside, getting involved somewhat offensively with four goals and seven points in 22 games while using his quick feet to cover a lot of area. Still, he's his own toughest critic.
"Whenever you're going into a higher league, you have a lot of catching up to do with the size and the speed of the other players," says Matheson, who is playing on the same team as his 20-year-old brother, forward Kenny Matheson, for the first time. "Those two differences change the whole game. Your defensive zone positioning chances. You have to give yourself more time, your angling has to change, you're battling with bigger guys. A lot of small things.
"I don't think that I'm quite there yet," adds Matheson, who was invited to the NHL's research, development and orientation camp, a seal of approval for any draft-year player. "I hope I can keep building and this Christmas break coming up will hopefully help me sit back look at what I've done well with and what I need to work on. If you look at some stats I've taken a lot of penalties and I'm not the kind of guy who takes a lot of penalties. I've just been caught in the defensive zone reaching a few times instead of using my feet."
Matheson is one of two potential high picks on the Fighting Saints. Captain Zemgus Girgensons should make Latvian hockey history in June by being the highest draft pick ever from the Baltic nation. The club won the USHL title as an expansion team last season. It won't be so easy this time, seeing how the Green Bay Gamblers have already built a 10-point lead over Dubuque for top spot in the Eastern Conference.
"My focus on the rest of the season is to help us keep growing as team and hopefully bring home a second Clark Cup, in their second year, actually," Matheson says. "We're really focused on trying to make that happen and we believe we have the ability to do it, but there's a lot of good teams in this league."
The 5 questions
1. How much has playing with your brother helped you settle into your first season away from home?
"It's helped a lot, especially being so far from home. We live in the same billet house. It doesn't seem so far when you've got your brother downstairs."
2. Apart from the obvious — build strength, improve skating and footwork — in what area of the game do you feel you need the most work before you're ready to sign a pro contract?
"Everything has to be worked on, but one area is definitely my D zone and the other is my gap control, keeping tight gaps on guys coming down the ice and keeping tight gaps laterally with my defence partner so nothing can get in between us."
3. Whom in the NHL do you watch and say, "I see things he does that I can blend into my own game" or "I need to start doing what he does?"
"I especially try to watch Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I try to play the same style game as him. He's a really good skater and a really good puckhandler and a real threat on offence but he's still very solid on defence."
4. How much have you benefited from playing for former NHLer Jim Montgomery in Dubuque?
"It's helpful to have a coach who's done it himself. He knows what it takes to get to the NHL and he had a really successful career in college and went to have a good NHL career. He controls his team very well and it's definitely a privilege to play for him."
5. Moving from Montreal to Dubuque, Iowa, is quite a change in scenery — what are you missing the most about your hometown?
"I always loved going out on the outdoor rinks during the season. They don't have any snow here. They don't have any snow in Montreal, actually. That's always something that I loved doing it, especially growing up as a kid. I'd spend all day, every day, on the outdoor rink. That's something that I miss. That and, I don't know, maybe a good smoked-meat sandwich."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: Jim Naprstek, Dubuque Fighting Saints/USHL).