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Up until about a week ago, you could not find odds for Matias Maccelli winning the Calder Trophy on the DraftKings Sportsbook App. This in spite of the fact that at that time, Maccelli was leading all NHL rookies in points.
Before the Sunday slate of NHL games began, Maccelli was second in rookie points (10) to Seattle’s Matty Beniers (11) and first in points per game (.63) among rookies with at least five games played, yet he still wasn’t getting much love from Vegas in the race for rookie of the year. Eleven players had better odds.
“His whole career, he has had to prove people wrong,” said Dubuque Fighting Saints GM Kalle Larsson, who had Maccelli for almost two seasons in the USHL. “I don’t know why he’s not taken seriously, but I think it’s just that he’s a nontraditional player and nontraditional makes people nervous so they’re like, ‘I don’t know about Maccelli.’
“Well, I know about Maccelli. The kid is a player.”
Maccelli had an advantage over other European players when he left Tampereen Ilves in the Finnish Liiga to join the Coyotes organization for good in the 2021-22 season. He had already played about a season and a half of North American hockey with Dubuque; a team that he joined after the U18 national team tournament around Christmas time. That experience gave him familiarity with the differences in culture, ice size and style of play.
But the move to the USHL was still made out of necessity.
“I was still too small and too young to play in Liiga and the U20 was maybe a little too easy,” Maccelli said. “The USHL was a good little step for me.”
Larsson said that there were also players of Maccelli’s age who were slotted ahead of him in the TPS system. Maccelli wanted a chance to prove that, despite his 5-feet-11 frame and style of play, he belonged at the head of the pack.
Fighting Saints forward Santeri Virtanen knew Maccelli from the TPS junior system and told Larsson that he wanted to come over to the USHL. Larsson called Maccelli’s parents, Petri and Antonia, and discovered that although she was Finnish, his mom had been born in Florida and the family was entirely onboard with the idea of Matias coming to the States.
So Dubuque began scouting him in earnest.
“I appreciated Matias for being what he is,” Larsson said. “I like a player that’s a little bit different and that’s how we sold him. We told him, ‘We have an environment for you where you can be yourself. Nobody’s gonna complain if you turn the puck over once or twice because you’re gonna make three elite plays.’
“He twists and he turns. Some people say he’s got soft skills. He’s the kind of player where at every level people were like, ‘Yeah, it works here, but it’s not gonna work at the next level.’ He’s unique. He’s very skilled and he makes plays because he sees things on the ice that other players don’t see and with that, he acts in ways on the ice that other players don’t. Maybe he doesn’t do the system the exact same way as everybody else but that’s because he sees things different.”
Maccelli still had to readjust to North America in his first season in Iowa, but by his second season, Larsson said it was “game over. He was a superstar.” Maccelli finished with 72 points (second in the USHL) in 62 games to earn second-team all-USHL honors.
That’s the season when Coyotes area scout Rick Comley Jr. first put Maccelli on the franchise’s radar.
“You start identifying kids very early in the year and you always start with a wider field of vision before you narrow it down once you get more viewings,” Comley said. “As the season went on, he just kept emerging and playing better. He forced you to pay attention to him because of what he was doing on the ice production-wise.
“We made sure we got eyes on him probably about once a month early in the year, and then as the list began to narrow down further, he became a more important piece to us. We would go back and see him more later on in the year.”
The elements of Maccelli’s game that jumped to the fore were the same ones that attracted Larsson.
“Hockey sense and skill level,” said Comley, who had held executive positions with the Omaha Lancers and USNTDP. “It was my first year of NHL scouting, so it was kind of a learning curve for me during the year as far as, ‘What does a first-round pick look like? What does a fourth-round pick look like?’ I knew the league, but I was learning how to scout at the NHL level.
“Early on in the year, he had some areas of his game that he needed to work on like a lot of these kids, but he just consistently made plays. Ultimately, it was the brain and the skill level that just was his biggest attraction.”
The Coyotes chose Maccelli with the team’s fourth-round pick (No. 98) in 2019. At that point, Maccelli pondered the same path that most USHL players follow: collegiate hockey. He made official visits to a couple of schools including Arizona State (he was teammates in Dubuque with current Sun Devils Ty and Dylan Jackson), but the need for another year of courses before enrolling at a university led Maccelli to return home and play for Ilves, where he was named Liiga rookie of the year after a 13-goal, 30-point season (43 games).
Maccelli probably would have reported to Tucson for the 2020-21 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the start of the regular season back to Feb. 5, so he stayed in Finland before moving back to North America the following season. When he arrived in Tucson, coach Steve Potvin saw all of the tight-space qualities that could make Maccelli a successful NHL player.
“That was already at the forefront of his game,” Potvin said. “He was able to get around and he was pretty slick and could avoid checks and create space for himself and find the open man. Whatever his options were, he was already ahead of it. He was able to read and think the game at the right pace.
“The thing we had to make sure that he was able to do was more than just provide scoring. It’s hard to score at the NHL level so you have to play a 200-foot game. He wasn’t a player that really loved to get into the battles and try to force a turnover off of a forecheck. We had to try to force him to get into those situations a little bit more frequently.”
Potvin said that once the staff explained the importance of those skills and the reasons behind them, Maccelli bought in quickly.
“He wants to do well and wants to take the next step and it doesn’t take him very long to understand what’s necessary,” Potvin said. “He had to just take ownership of the wall battles on breakouts; make sure that he was good in the D-zone when he actually was in the D-zone. He had the puck a lot so we didn’t spend much time in the D- zone with him here, but when he’s in there, we needed to make sure he was responsible; he was strong on the walls. He conformed pretty quickly and found ways to do it.
“I think part of it is that he’s more intense than you think. You give him information and he stares right through you. I’m telling you, you’re not gonna break this kid. He’s so intentional, he’s so much fun, and he’s the same guy every time. You give him information and he doesn’t get rattled. He just death-stares you like, ‘OK. Let’s go. I got it.’”
Had Maccelli spent that entire season with the Roadrunners, he would have broken their single-season points record held by Chris Mueller (67). He had 57 points in 47 games when the Coyotes called him up due to a rash of injuries. That 16-game stint gave him a look at the things that he would need to do at the next level and he set about refining them.
“I had a really good summer back in Finland and my focus coming into the camp was just making the team by doing whatever it takes,” he said. “If you want to play more minutes in this league, you’ve got to do those little details well and have a good overall two-way game, so for sure, I’ve been trying to put some more effort into that.”
Coyotes coach André Tourigny said that focus is obvious.
“What people don’t talk about is his compete level and his engagement defensively,” Tourigny said. “I think we have a different Celli than last year. He’s more mature than last year. He takes pride in defending and takes pride in playing well in the zones; takes pride in blocking shots. He’s not perfect and he will never be but he tries to be and I appreciate that.”
Maccelli has also shown a better understanding of puck management.
“He had a little bit of lack of maturity with the puck last year,” Tourigny said. “Maturity with the puck translates like when you have nothing, accept it and just put it deep or put it north; chip it. You need to be able to accept the fact that sometimes the opponents are in a good position. That’s it. You need to live to fight another day. That’s the way it is.
“When you’re young, you don’t accept that. You try to get a trick and once in a while it works and everybody says, ‘Hey, great move.’ Now you get excited. You try to do it every time and it doesn’t work.”
Maccelli has been playing on a line with Nick Bjugstad and Lawson Crouse, a pair of big bodies who have cleared space for him and shepherded through NHL adolescence. There is a give-and-take to the relationship, however.
“He has some hockey sense that not many guys have so when you get to play with a guy like that you try to get open,” Bjugstad said. “There was a play [against the Rangers] where I was the last guy on the rush and I thought, no chance I was getting the puck. I don’t know how he saw me, threw it across the ice, gave me a good chance. Playing with a guy like that, you definitely want him with the puck and you want to create space for him. Obviously, me and Crouse are some bigger guys, so I’ll try to get to the net and let him kind of work it up top with the D-men.”
Two things that may be holding Maccelli back in the Calder discussion (aside from the fact that he plays for the Coyotes) are his goal total and the fact that seven of his 10 points (and his lone goal) have come on the power play where he is getting time on the team’s second unit.
Young players are often deferential to veterans, passing up scoring opportunities so they are not viewed as selfish. If Maccelli is to make a Calder push and round out his game, he’ll have to score more and that means shooting more. As of Sunday, he was tied for 14th on the team in shots on goal (14). That figure was tied for 28th among NHL rookies.
“He reminds me of [Florida’s Aleksander] Barkov in that way where sometimes they overpass because they’re so unselfish,” Bjugstad said.
Potvin said that Maccelli’s shot is a silent weapon because it is quick, deceptive and hard enough. Tourigny said that Maccelli has to find the right balance between passing and shooting if he wants to sustain this level of success and chip in more at 5-on-5.
“He needs to and we explained that to him,” the Coyotes coach said. “We’re not the only team with video. They will know what you’re doing. If you have only one trick, that won’t work. I told him, ‘Enjoy the moment if you have only one trick because that will catch up pretty soon. When you’re like him and you have success, now they’re looking, ‘Who’s this guy? How does he play?’ They will pick up on his play. That’s part of the growth of a player. You need to learn that part and you need to add to your arsenal and make sure you can beat opponents more than one way.”
Maccelli admits that he is absorbing a lot of information from a lot of different sources on the Coyotes staff and roster, but he feels fortunate for, and energized by the opportunity to stick with the team this season.
“It’s still my first year here and I’m trying to get better every day; trying to be just a little better,” he said. “Eventually, I want to play more minutes, score more goals and maybe play on the first power-play unit and stuff like that. So for sure, there’s a lot of room for improvement.”
Top photo: Matias Maccelli skates past the New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 13. (Getty Images)