How Nicolas Mattinen earned a Maple Leafs contract nearly eight years after being drafted

When the Maple Leafs drafted Nicolas Mattinen in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Draft, then-Leafs assistant general manager Mark Hunter preached patience.

“I feel good about his upside. He’s a big, strong kid that just needs a little bit of time, of course,” Hunter said of Mattinen that June.

Few could have anticipated just how much time would pass before the Leafs finally gave the 6-foot-5 right-shot defenceman his shot.

In the nearly eight years since the 2016 NHL Draft, 116 of the 211 players drafted have played an NHL game. But finally, and also strangely on Sunday, the Leafs signed Mattinen to a one-year, two-way deal with an AAV of $775,000 beginning next season.

“It’s a full circle moment. I’m reliving the same emotions I felt when I was drafted,” Mattinen told The Athletic.

The Leafs like his offensive instincts and his ability to move the puck, with his size to boot, of course. Mattinen led defencemen in scoring Germany’s DEL this past season with 46 points in 52 games and was named league MVP. There is a feeling in the Leafs organization that his game has developed and matured from where it was as a junior player, enough so that Mattinen’s play could justify a cheap swing on a sizeable right-shot defenceman who can play with the puck.

“Internally, I always felt like I could play (in the NHL). I just kept working on my game and internally believing that ‘If you’re good enough, they’ll find you.’ Toronto found me for the second time, eight years later,” Mattinen said.

What Mattinen’s role in the organization looks like next season depends on who re-signs with the organization, who earns a promotion from the AHL and most importantly, what kind of training camp Mattinen has. He is now just the third right-shot defenceman signed in the organization for next season.

Regardless of which side of the Ford Performance Centre he ends up practicing on next season, Mattinen’s path to the Leafs organization has been long, winding and full of uncertainty.

Players are just not supposed to sign NHL contracts nearly eight years after being drafted.

Flash back to his draft season in 2015-16 and Mattinen played deep in the lineup on a stacked London Knights team.

He attended the Leafs’ 2016 and 2017 development camps and would soon run the gamut of OHL teams, moving from London to Flint to Hamilton to Oshawa. Once his Leafs rights expired and his junior hockey eligibility concluded, Mattinen headed to the University of Ottawa. There wasn’t enough development in his game within that time frame.

Every single season, hundreds of players drafted by NHL organizations don’t ink contracts with those teams. They fade from consciousness as their careers continue across their hockey world.

The chances of a player moving from the OUAA to the NHL are about as rare as they come. And even with an eight-game spin with the AHL’s Laval Rocket at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season, Mattinen’s NHL career looked dead in the water.

Yet Mattinen’s move across the pond and first full professional season in Austria with EC VSV, however, represented an intriguing season in his development trajectory. The offence that only really emerged in his final junior season didn’t just continue, but was bolstered. With 42 points in 46 games, Mattinen — again, once a defence-first defender lower in the lineup with the Knights — showed the kind of offensive instincts that undoubtedly would have bolstered his draft stock had he been able to show continuously as a large, right-shot blue liner in his draft season.

This past season, Mattinen took a step up from Austria to Germany’s DEL, an emerging league that doesn’t possess the depth of player quality that the Swedish or Finnish league might but is still growing in talent.

“It’s been a hell of an experience,” Mattinen said of his time in Europe. “Going to Austria, I was playing well, I thought, ‘I can play in a better league.’ Then in Germany, I thought, ‘I got this.’ Now having this opportunity to play against the best players in the world, I’m ready for this challenge.”

With the Straubing Tigers in Germany, Mattinen showed his previous season’s offensive output wasn’t just a one-off. Mattinen’s ability to continue to add offence to his game, including with his heavy and accurate shot, is part of what helped keep him on the Leafs’ radar. Tigers coach Tom Pokel praised how mobile he became with the puck through the season, how much more effective Mattinen played in his own end in the playoffs, and the increased physicality he employed in his game.

“(Mattinen) is a bigger and better player than he was in the past,” Pokel said. “He’s more mature and mentally stronger.”

“To get noticed, you need offence. But my game in North America is about playing solid defence, having a good first pass. Success will come from keeping the puck out of your end. That’s how I went into my first few professional seasons in Europe: focus on defence and slowly build your way to contributing offence,” Mattinen said.

Because of his strong season, Mattinen had heard rumblings throughout the season that Leafs were once again interested in signing him. Four days after his season ended with the Tigers, Mattinen was on his couch in Germany watching the final day of The Masters when he connected with Leafs GM Brad Treliving on a call to welcome him to the organization.

The phrase “development isn’t linear” doesn’t apply to all players, but it most certainly applies to Mattinen. He plans on heading to Toronto early this summer to work with the Leafs development staff and will then be in the city regularly to continue developing his game.

“I enjoy it all: training in the summer, being around the guys, doing extra things after practice. All those things make the entire experience enjoyable. And when you’re having fun, it makes you always want to get better,” Mattinen said. “I’m trying to be the best version of myself and I still have room to grow.”

Of the 11 players drafted by the Leafs in 2016 — seen as a pivotal draft to the team’s rebuild — only four logged any NHL time in Toronto: Auston Matthews, Joseph Woll, Adam Brooks and Egor Korshkov, who played just one game for the Leafs.

Mattinen could add to that list, even if he’s earned a contract in the most improbable of circumstances.

Moving forward, at the risk of reading too much into the signing of a defenceman on a two-way contract, the addition of Mattinen still reveals — or reinforces — some organizational philosophies about defenceman acquisitions.

First, if this wasn’t already alarmingly obvious: size ranks somewhere between a high priority and a must in any defencemen added to the roster. The Leafs also traded for the NHL rights to 6-foot-6 defenceman Cade Webber in March. The days of drafting smallish types on the back end like Mac Hollowell and Mike Koster feel long gone.

This could hold true for how the Leafs utilize their seven draft picks this summer. (Side note: if the Leafs keep their 2024 first-round pick I’m already putting Charlie Elick, the 6-foot-3 smooth skating right-shot defenceman, at the top of my list of predicted picks)

What this means for current defence prospects in the organization not built like Douglas Fir trees remains to be seen. The case of 6-foot right-shot defenceman Topi Niemela, still the team’s best defence prospect, will come under a microscope in training camp. His consistent AHL season and high-end work rate mean he appears ready for an NHL spin. Will that come, even with the height listed on the 2024 training camp roster?

Next, even if a defenceman has gaps in his game — Mattinen’s skating requires the keen eye of the Leafs development staff — this organization under current leadership appears ready to want to smooth them out if a player can boast that aforementioned size.

So when it comes to bargain bin shopping, which the Leafs will undoubtedly continue to have to do, defence projects with size could be at the top of the shopping list.

And while it might have felt unlikely for close to a decade, Mattinen can now safely add his name to the list of projects in consideration for a Leafs spot out of training camp in 2024.

“I’ve been thinking about draft day, and the jersey the Leafs gave me at the draft that’s framed in my basement. But I’m going to have to add another one from 2024,” Mattinen said. “And I bet I keep looking at them both and say, ‘What the heck? How did this happen?’”

(Photo of Nicolas Mattinen and Montreal Canadiens forward Jeremiah Addison from the 2017 preseason Rookie Tournament: Gerry Angus / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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