There was a point in his young life when New York Islanders top prospect Matthew Maggio wasn’t entirely sure how far hockey would be able to take him.
For an NHL hopeful who had always heard the importance of gaudy statlines, or what he liked to describe as “numbers, numbers, numbers,” Maggio simply didn’t have much to boast.
As a 16-year-old during the 2018-19 season, he was demoted to the Ontario Hockey League’s minor leagues by his junior club, the Ottawa 67’s after just 35 games given the logjam of talent the roster had. Deemed expendable, he was traded to the Windsor Spitfires the following year where he could only muster three goals and 11 assists in 45 games as another talented roster kept him low on the depth chart.
“There was a point after two years in the OHL where I definitely had doubts,” Maggio told amNewYork. “Every human has doubts. I still have doubts to this day, but hard work really silences that.”
Then COVID hit, forcing Maggio to get creative during quarantine at home while facing the harsh realities of a dimming NHL dream. His dad bought home synthetic shooting tiles that he was able to strap onto the net in his basement, which was big enough for him to get some work done.
“I wasn’t really known for having too hard a shot and I think that’s something that kind of came from COVID,” Maggio said. “While some guys couldn’t do anything, I was down there religiously just working on my game.”
His shot improved, as did his game, and when he looked to get back on the ice after the OHL canceled the 2020-21 season, he went to Sweden. The numbers weren’t quite there yet, though. In 19 games with SK Lejon of HockeyEttan — Sweden’s third tier — he potted three goals and eight assists.
But he decided to declare for the 2021 NHL Draft at the age of 18, anyway, without those much-needed numbers.
He didn’t get drafted.
“Going to the draft and feeling like I had so much more to prove was so upsetting,” Maggio said. “So I remember the day after I didn’t get drafted, I went for a run for like, an hour and a half, and my mom was calling me to tell me to come back home. It was just one of those days where you grow up and dream of getting drafted to the NHL and when it doesn’t happen, it hurts a lot.
“So for [the following year’s draft] I really made it a goal where I was happy with my year and I was at a point where I was just like, ‘if it happens, it happens.'”
And that’s when things began to click.
He returned to the OHL and Windsor for the 2021-22 season where he broke out for 38 goals and 47 assists (85 points) in 66 games while on a line with eventual Dallas Stars first-round pick Wyatt Johnston and 2020 New York Rangers second-round pick Will Cuylle. Johnston, who Maggio described as the greatest player he’s ever shared the ice with, made his NHL debut last season, recording 24 goals with the Stars. Cuylle is considered one of the Rangers’ top prospects, breaking into the NHL for four games last season.
“My motto is just work so hard that I give myself confidence,” Maggio said. “I think that’s something that I’ve really done and I think it really started coming when I was playing with Johnston and Cuylle and seeing that I could keep up with these guys. Halfway through that year, I realized, ‘wow, I can do this. Let’s see how far this goes.'”
Yet the company that he kept on the ice in Windsor turned out to provide one last junior hurdle.
“I finally did get some numbers and it was apparently all because of my linemates,” he said. “So that was a real mission of mine to go back and show that I can do it on my own and really lead a team.”
Before he could set his sights solely on the 2022-23 campaign, a surprise came his way over the summer. The Islanders drafted him in the fifth round — a life-altering event for any aspiring hockey player met with as little pomp or heraldry as possible. This time around, Maggio wasn’t watching. Instead, he had his friends over to work out and his parents weren’t home when his agent called him to give him the news.
“It goes to show that I didn’t really give too much into the rounds and stuff like that,” Maggio said. “The draft is just the start. This is a leap of faith the organization took with me so I took that and just want to make them proud and show them that they didn’t waste a pick on me.”
Following Islanders rookie development camp last year, he was sent back to Windsor for his final OHL season where he stepped into a team that was his to lead. Maggio was given the captain’s “C” and the starring responsibilities that came with it.
He didn’t disappoint.
Voted the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player, he reeled off 54 goals with 57 assists while shooting up toward the very top of the Islanders’ prospect rankings. So high, in fact, that he’s more focused on making a strong push toward the NHL this season even if the more likely result is time in the AHL with the Islanders’ minor-league affiliate.
At least there won’t be any doubts even if he doesn’t make the big club out of camp for the 2023-24 campaign.
“I’m a player that’s had to prove people wrong my whole life,” Maggio said. “I’ve never really been in that first-round, second-round type of player and I’ve had to climb the ranks. I like to play with a chip on my shoulder and to have all that attention is great, but I’m really trying not to focus on it.
“I have a job here to do and I’m just trying to give everything I can to make that happen.”