How Nic Mattinen ended up back in Toronto eight years after the Maple Leafs drafted him

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Hobson
12 days ago
If you didn’t know the name Nic Mattinen before yesterday, nobody would have blamed you. A 6-foot-6 right-handed defenceman from Ottawa, Ontario, he was once a sixth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, back in 2016. He played out his junior career, didn’t receive an entry-level deal from the Leafs, and ended up going to the University of Ottawa to further his hockey career once he outgrew the OHL. Usually, playing University hockey in Canada is a telltale sign that the NHL dream is dimming, so most people (myself included) fell out of touch with what he was up to in the year 2024.
Well, apparently some people in the Leafs organization were still keeping tabs on Mattinen, because on April 14, the team announced a one-year contract for the defenceman in 2024-25, worth the league minimum of $775,000. To say the signing came as a surprise would have been a massive understatement – you typically don’t see teams circle back on players they drafted eight years after the fact, and in the rare case otherwise, it’s usually a European pick on the team’s reserve list playing pro overseas. What made the signing even more surprising was that he was originally drafted two Leafs regimes ago. This wasn’t a Kyle Dubas draft pick – it was a Mark Hunter draft pick made under Lou Lamoriello. While there are still some scouts within the organization who were here during that regime, it’s not like we’re talking about a GM and an amateur scout who are circling back on somebody they knew well and elected not to take a chance on at the time. I know that 2016 can feel like three years ago at times, but the fact is, we’re nearing the eight-year anniversary of the 2016 NHL Draft. I apologize if that made you feel old.
So, what’s different in 2024? Why did the Leafs step into the time travel portal and single out a late-round pick who never played a pro game for the organization eight years after the fact? Let’s take a little trip down memory lane and see what we can take away from it.
If you weren’t following the Leafs during the 2015 and 2016 drafts or simply don’t pay much attention to the draft to begin with, it was a hectic time in Toronto. After years of trying to fast-track their rebuilds and bring the faithful a consistent playoff team like they had been craving since the early 2000s, the firing of Brian Burke and the eventual hiring of Brendan Shanahan as President of Hockey Operations signalled a new direction for the franchise. They finally committed to rebuilding the proper way, developing homegrown talent and parting with unrestricted free agents (UFAs) at the trade deadline to recoup picks and prospects. Led by Hunter on the draft floor and Dubas working the phones, the Leafs made several trades to move down in the draft and round up more prospects and committed to taking the best player available in their minds. If you go back and look at their 2015 draft class, outside of Mitch Marner, it’s safe to say maybe that scouting staff should have been questioned a little bit more.
So, onto 2015-16. The Leafs had finished dead last in the league, subsequently winning the draft lottery and the ability to select Auston Matthews first overall. It’s a good thing they were able to accomplish that, if nothing else, because despite having 11 picks this time around, their class would pan out almost as badly as the year before. Hindsight is 20/20, though, to be fair.
One thing that was glaringly obvious about the 2016 draft class was the type of players they opted for. While the 2015 class featured lots of undersized, skilled players, the Leafs seemed to put an emphasis on size. Eight of the 11 players they selected stood at 6-foot-2 or taller, with all three defencemen they picked standing at 6-foot-4 or taller. These defencemen were J.D. Greenway, Keaton Middleton, and Mattinen, who was a teammate of Marner, the team’s top prospect at the time. Greenway is currently playing for the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits, and Middleton is in the Colorado Avalanche’s farm system. In Mattinen’s draft year, he had ten points in 39 games for the OHL’s London Knights and didn’t seem to take much of a step forward until his final junior season in 2018-19, split between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Oshawa Generals. He finished with 61 points in 68 games that year, but it wasn’t enough to get a contract from the Leafs.
With no pen to paper with the Leafs or any other teams, Mattinen moved on to play OUAA (Ontario University Athletics Association) hockey with the University of Ottawa. He spent three years there but only played two seasons, missing out on the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic, but finished on a high note with 13 points in 18 games in 2021-22, serving as an alternate captain. It earned him an eight-game look with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, farm team of the Montreal Canadiens, but nothing came of it.
From there, Mattinen’s hockey career took him to Europe. He signed with Villacher SV of the IceHL, Austria’s top pro league, and turned heads with 12 goals and 42 points in 46 games. He was able to turn that into a contract with the Straubing Tigers of the DEL, neighbouring Germany’s top pro league, and his European career took off. Not only did he continue his consistency offensively, scoring 16 goals en route to 46 points in 52 games, he also took home DEL Defenceman of the Year honours. He was used in all situations and spent the majority of the season skating alongside 20-year-old defenceman Adrian Klein, whose development had come to somewhat of a standstill three years after making his debut in the DEL. Mattinen’s presence did wonders for the young blueliner, which likely played into his recognition at the end of the season too.
Just like that, Mattinen is back with the Leafs’ organization eight years after they announced his name on draft day. How the Leafs plan to use him in 2024-25 is unknown, but he’ll more than likely start as a presence in the AHL and add a veteran presence to a young defensive corps that features the likes of Topi Niemela and William Villeneuve. At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, he clearly fits the mould of defenceman that general manager Brad Treliving has been after since joining the organization, and if he impresses early in the AHL, he might see himself in a Leafs uniform at some point next season. For him to be rejoining the organization as a 26-year-old is wild enough to think about on its own, especially considering you can’t really call him a prospect anymore, to think there’s a chance he might play a game or two for the Leafs next season is plain crazy.
Let this be a lesson to those who don’t get picked up by an NHL team during their junior career – it’s never too late. If Mattinen can put four years in as a junior hockey player, three years at a Canadian University, and two years in Europe before finally signing with the team that drafted him, there will always be a path to the NHL if you work hard enough to carve it.

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