On the ice, Nick Mattson has a patient, mature defensive game. Off the ice, Mattson is baby-faced and talks a mile a minute — so fast that he skips words along the way. It’s such a contrast that it’s hard to meld the two together.
Opinions of Mattson vary almost as much as these two sides of him. He may not go high in the 2010 NHL draft because he doesn’t excel at either putting up points (just 19 in 51 games this year) or the physical game. He’s average in size at 6’1, 190, and equally good both ways, and that doesn’t sell as well.
Late developers, who come into the spotlight only in their draft year, are often favored over those who developed early as well. Mattson was good at 15, enough to be invited to the US National Development Team Program. But Mattson, who turned 18 in October, also improved a lot this season, something those who only watched him in the fall or winter might have missed.
"I think as the season’s progressed, Nick’s definitely gotten better and better," Indiana Ice GM and coach Jeff Blashill said in late March. "He started a little bit slow, he got hurt twice during the year (hip and facial fracture). That kind of knocked him back a little bit. Now I think he’s really starting to come and hopefully his best hockey will be down the stretch in the playoff run."
Mattson said there were ups and downs to the season, but what he feels he’s improved on the most this year is rounding out his game.
"I’ve been trying to balance being offensive and defensive," he said. "A lot of times you see a player and he’s too offensive and not able to fill the defensive responsibilities, or vice-versa, so I’m trying to find a balance and be a good two-way player."
Blashill has Mattson playing critical minutes, like the last minute of a tie game.
"He can do it all," Blashill said. "He can defend, he can transition the puck. The one thing I think he does very well is poise under pressure. When the game’s on the line, he’s someone we’ll definitely want to have on the ice."
That poise no doubt comes from the many pressure-filled situations he experienced while with the NTDP. Mattson was part of the team who won gold at the U18 World Championships in Fargo last April.
Moving to the USHL this season was more than just biding his time until starting at North Dakota. He had a year of high school to finish, plus some developing to do.
"I think his instincts are very good," Blashill said. "I think our systems are a little bit different than what’s he’s been used to. That’s part of the progression he had this year. It’s probably away from his natural instincts. We’re a little more aggressive in certain areas of the ice. But I think his hockey instincts, hockey IQ are very good."
Mattson also gets a thumbs up from his goaltender, Cab Morris, who described him as "a great skating defenseman, really moves the puck well and sees the ice well. Also a really great defensive-defenseman who you can rely on to be back, doing the right thing."
Mattson has been paired most of the season with Taylor Boldt, who’s headed to Dartmouth College next season.
"He’s a really smart guy," Mattson said of Boldt. "He’s got a 4.3 GPA I think. Off the ice he helps me with my homework and on the ice he helps me with defense (laughs)."
Mattson is committed to the University of North Dakota, which most people in his home state of Minnesota consider a rival school. He’s very excited to finally get there.
"When I tell people I’m going to North Dakota, they give me a funny look like ‘What are you going to do up there?’ but yeah, I’m really excited. I grew up watching them actually. I have a couple buddies there and everyone I’ve talked do that’s been there cannot say enough good things about it."
He’s scheduled to begin this fall, but a medical red shirt by Chay Genoway for last season could crowd up the blue line and keep Mattson in the USHL another year. If he returns, he’ll have a new coach, as Blashill was just named the coach at Western Michigan University.
With the extra time, Mattson could decide what he wants to study once he gets there. Right now, he’s decidedly undecided.
"Me and my mom talk about that a lot," he said. "I’ve been thinking about being a teacher, and they have a really good entrepreneurship program up there. Teaching or business or something. I need to figure that out. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I want to do, but I can’t really figure it out."
History, either high school or middle school, is what he would want to teach, but that’s a while down the road since he’s still working on finishing high school himself. He’s doing his senior year online, which adds another layer of difficulty.
"It’s been a little bit rough because it’s all on me to get the stuff in on time. I’m a pretty big procrastinator when it comes to school work, so it’s actually been a good experience to improve my personal school habits."
Mattson’s grown up a lot in the past few years. He calls his adaptation to moving away from home to join the U17 team his greatest adversity so far.
"I was a 15-year-old kid, had never been out of the state for an extended period of time. Never been away from my parents for more than a day," he said. "I thought I was a big, bad sophomore in high school, all ready to go, but I remember sitting in my bed every night just wanting to go home. I called my mom and told her I hated it. She said stick it out, keep working hard. At the time I hated her for it (laughs), but looking back on it, it was a really good experience. I think I’ve grown up a lot. I’m a lot more independent, but at the same time my family has grown closer because of it. It was definitely hard, but at the end of the day, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger."
With the U-17 team, Mattson had 23 points in 63 games, and with the U-18s had 20 points in 62 games last year.
Mattson got to see a lot of NTDP players go through the draft process last year, which he said prepared him for what to expect. He said his approach to the upcoming draft, like many players, is to try to keep it out of his mind and just play. But he admitted this was hard to do, and at times he hasn’t been able to.
"You’re never going to be scrutinized more than your draft year," Mattson said. "If you make a mistake, it’s magnified even more. At times it can really eat away at you — you sit on your couch at night and just think ‘Wow, I really screwed up.’ (laughs) But you have to remember that the reason you play the game is for fun and if you’re not having fun then what’s the point? I just try to have fun every day."
And Mattson looks like he is indeed having fun. He lost a shootout drill during morning skate at the USHL All-Star Game and laughed it off as a "tough day."
To be sure, Mattson needs to work on playing at a high level all the time, maintaining consistency. His -7 on the year wasn’t something to be proud of. But those who feel Mattson has plateaued should know that he sees this as the beginning, not the end.
"The draft is just getting picked by a team and the rest is how you do after that," Mattson said. "You could be the best 18-year-old player in the world and never amount to anything, or the worst 18-year-old and end up a great NHLer. It’s all just one year and it’s what you make of it after that. That’s my approach to it."