If you want to talk about a road less traveled en route to an NHL contract, how is this one for the newly signed Nicolas Mattinen?

A sixth-round pick of the Leafs in 2016 -> four years in the OHL spanning London, Flint, and Oshawa -> two years of Canadian university hockey (U. of Ottawa) -> a cup of tea in the AHL with Laval -> Austrian league  -> German league -> a one-year, two-way NHL deal worth $775k with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the age of 26.

The former London Knight was a big-bodied “project” pick of then-Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter in the 2016 draft. The Leafs picked him last of their three 2016 selections on defense who all stood 6’5 or taller (J.D. Greenway, Keaton Middleton, and Mattinen. They then selected the 6’5 Eemeli Rasanen and the 6’7 Fedor Goreev in 2017. Only Middleton, who appeared in three games with the Avalanche, has played an NHL game among this cohort).

Back in his draft year, Mattinen was listed as 6’4.5, and he is now listed as 6’6, 225 pounds eight years later, according to Elite Prospects. From drafting the 6’4 Noah Chadwick and the signing of NHL UFA Simon Benoit last offseason, to the deadline additions of Ilya Lyubushkin and Joel Edmundson, to the recent acquisition of 6’7 college prospect Cade Webber, Mattinen very much fits the Brad Treliving modus operandi of adding more size to the defense position at all levels of the organization. Notably, Mattinen also shoots right.

In this case, it’s a flyer on bringing a possible late bloomer over to the American league with the only possible downside of occupying a Standard Player Contract slot for one season. Given the unusual path and age (26) considerations, it’s hard to view Mattinen as anything but an NHL long shot until/unless there is some proof of concept in the AHL, but he has flashed some intriguing glimpses of his mobility and offensive upside late in his OHL career in the run-up to some major production in his recent pro seasons over in Europe.

To get a better sense of Mattinen’s recent exploits in Germany, McKeen’s Chapin Landvogt (@Csomichapin) provided the following insights to MLHS.

Nicolas Mattinen’s “Player of the Year” 2023-24 season in the DEL

One can best summarize the season Nicolas Mattinen just concluded in the German DEL by stating that he took the league by storm. Coming into the season, it’s safe to say that fans and pundits around the German ice hockey scene were expecting little from him. His acquisition out of the ICEHL in neighboring Austria was a unique move, as it’s usually the older North Americans on the career downswing who make their way from the DEL to Austria.

Mattinen’s numbers from the prior season in Villach were indeed very shiny (43 points and a +37 in 51 games) and his monstrous size was clearly tantalizing. Still, the lack of pro experience coming out of North America had most experts expecting him to basically slide in as a fourth/fifth defenseman in the pecking order while wondering if a player his size would have the skating prerequisites. In addition, Canadian players coming out of the USports circuit generally find themselves kicking things off in Germany in the second — if not third — pro circuits.

However, from day one on September 15th, Mattinen was an impact player who often led the charge for his small-budget Straubing Tigers, a team that once again spurned the expert predictions by finishing third overall in the regular season. Mattinen was a central figure in that success.

By the 16th game of the season, Mattinen was one of the league’s top overall scorers with 10 goals and 20 points. With this blue-line production seeming too good to be true, there were still voices in and around Straubing that felt he’d have to return to earth at some point, but that never really happened.

All season long, Mattinen never went more than three games without a point and finished things off with 14 multi-point games along the way and right on into the playoffs. The consistency of his offensive contributions outdid that of the vast majority of forwards in the league as he ultimately finished seventh overall in regular-season scoring. All the while, he was used in all situations and was a mainstay on both special teams.

It’s hard to imagine that any close observers would be surprised that he ended the year with a +18 over 64 total games; the difficulty attacking forwards in getting around (much less through) him paired with his stifling blocking of shooting and passing lanes made it look like the league was perhaps a tad too easy for him at times.

Most notable is that, although there were some kinks here and there in his overall mobility and skating mechanics, he is mobile to the point where he was constantly all over the ice. His skills along the blueline were that of a classic big defenseman (i.e., he wasn’t the type to dance around up there), but his shot power and pass accuracy from a distance were often threatening. He was also the third or fourth attacker off the rush with a high degree of regularity. He was everywhere on the ice and seemed to possess the vision to successfully get pucks through traffic or pick corners.

Understandingly, his production dropped off a bit in the playoffs (1-6-7 in 12 games) as Straubing played two incredibly difficult and hard-fought series, but his importance to his team was underlined in some very bold print as he averaged over 24 minutes of ice time per game, breaking the 30-minute mark twice. In the final two losses of the season, he was out there for over 27 minutes apiece, gaining a +2 in the process. In Game 2 of the series against Berlin, he played a whopping 41:57 in a one-goal loss (and no, that game didn’t go to overtime).

While Mattinen’s one season in the DEL will go down in German hockey history as one full of offensive production, minute-munching, and suffocating defending, he’ll be heading back to North America having left quite a nice little gift for the faithful back in Straubing. As the season progressed, he was often paired with 20-year-old Adrian Klein, a 6’3”, 215-pound defenseman whose progress had stagnated considerably in recent years after debuting in the DEL as a 16-year-old.

Still eligible for the draft as an overager, Klein matured next to Mattinen into a physical force who applied himself with the puck more and more as the season progressed. By the time the playoffs ended, Klein had become a top-six fixture and finished the year with three goals, 11 points, and a +3 in 64 games, flashing many of the same inclinations on the ice as Mattinen.

Mattinen’s new employer might value that kind of leadership in bringing Mattinen into the fold for next season. The impact he had on his team and the development of this younger colleague is indicative of a character level that might be valuable on an AHL club with promising, younger options.

For DEL fans, it’s clear that they were able to witness a special player by DEL standards, one who was certainly on the way up in his career path. It often looked like he was just now starting to understand how genuinely good and impactful he could actually be.