TEMPE, Ariz. — Matias Maccelli charges across the blue line and stops so abruptly near the right circle that the defender skates right past. Without appearing to even glance back, he slips a pass between two defenders right on the tape of a trailing teammate.
An athletic move, adept vision, goal.
It’s the type of play the Arizona Coyotes rookie has been making all season, putting him in the conversation to be a Calder Trophy finalist despite missing a month of the season.
“He’s been one of the driving forces of our team,” Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong said. “He just creates so much with his skating, puck handling and elite passing.”
Building on a short NHL stint a year ago, Maccelli made Arizona’s roster out of training camp this season and got off to a sizzling start. Showing off his playmaking ability, the 22-year-old Finnish forward was second among NHL rookies in scoring with three goals and 19 assists in 30 games before going down with a lower-body injury.
Maccelli picked up where he left off after returning, scoring seven goals with 16 assists the next 30 games.
Maccelli was second behind Seattle’s Matty Beniers (56) among NHL rookies with 46 points and leads with 36 assists. Maccelli is the seventh rookie in the past 15 seasons to have at least 35 assists the first 60 games of a season and leads all NHL rookies with 0.75 points per game.
“It was really good for me going into this season,” Maccelli said of his time with the Coyotes last season. “It was huge that I got myself into the league a little bit and I knew what to expect for this year.
Maccelli has had success at every level despite often being the smallest player on the ice.
The 5-foot-11, 176-pound winger could get by with his incredible skill set when he was young, like a tall kid who dominates in basketball because he’s taller than everyone. It worked when Maccelli played in the United States Hockey League and when he returned home to play in Finnish Liiga after the Coyotes selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 NHL draft.
Maccelli continued to thrive when he returned to the U.S. to play for the Tucson Roadrunners, breaking the Arizona AHL affiliate’s single-season points record with 57 points in 47 games.
Maccelli got called up when the Coyotes got hit with a rash of injuries last season and ended up playing 23 games, finishing with a goal and five assists. The callup gave him the confidence he could play in the NHL, but also showed what he needed to work on.
“He’s got to find (open) ice to work,” Armstrong said. “I think that was the big challenge for him when he first came into the league, trying to find that ice. That was a hard thing for him, knowing if I go over here I could get killed. It’s a faster game and it takes some time to settle down in your brain and also feel confident you can play at the NHL level.”
Being a smaller player with quickness, Maccelli always had a knack for avoiding the big hits delivered by larger players. The NHL is filled with massive players who can also skate, so there was an adjustment for a player used to skating around everyone.
Maccelli has worked in recent years at becoming more of a two-way player, a prerequisite if he was going to play for the Coyotes, and spent last summer building strength. The added muscle has allowed him to better absorb the inevitable hits in the NHL, fend off defensemen and battle for pucks in scrums.
“I’m still not the biggest guy out there, but there’s a little more weight on me and a little more strength,” Maccelli said. “That was the biggest thing.”
Now that he’s in the NHL, Maccelli has gotten a front-row view of what a skilled smaller player can do.
Clayton Keller has blossomed into Arizona’s best player, leading the team with 36 goals and 46 assists. The 5-11, 178-pound forward was voted to his third NHL All-Star game and needs four points in the final four games to match Keith Tkachuk’s Coyotes record for points in a season since the franchise moved from Winnipeg in 1996.
“I’m taking every opportunity I can, in the game, at practice, to watch what he does, try to get something in my game, too,” Maccelli said.
Maccelli already has the skill set to succeed in the NHL. The more he adds to his game, the more of a force he will become.