The hardest position to crack in the NHL could be that of defenseman. The speed of the game is unbelievable and unforgiving. Forwards are big, strong and skilled to the highest level. It’s almost unheard of for a teenager to be able to be an NHL defenseman, but Olli Maatta has shown in his nine game tryout that he is that rarest breed of player, and he deserves a longer look in the NHL.
It’s the right decision for the player, and the most benefit to the team, and here’s why.
Is Olli Maatta one of the six best defensemen on the Penguins?
With Kris Letang close to returning from the knee injury that’s kept him out all season, some would say no. I’m not keen on agreeing. Letang, along with Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin will fill out the top four slots, that’s a given. Then Matt Niskanen, who’s playing superbly so far this season, is a lock to be on the third pair.
Olli Maatta, right now, is one of the Pens six best defensemen. On top of that, it’s hard to keep an NHL blueline healthy. Letang has missed 53 games since the start of the 2011-12 season, Martin has been out 19, and Orpik has missed 11. Send back Maatta and suffer one injury and suddenly Engelland’s going in the lineup, and Bortuzzo (still somewhat of an unknown) will be asked to be a regular. The Pens do have untested or so-far unproven options on the farm, but dropping Maatta gives up a player known to have played well at the NHL level.
There’s no hiding the fact that Maatta has been sheltered this season. From quality of competition and getting advantageous starts in the offensive zone, Coach Dan Bylsma and the Pens have done all they could to possibly ease him into games. As, again, you’d probably expect for a 19 year old who has no NHL experience.
But there are some indicators that Maatta can and should get some luck swinging his way. He has a low PDO among Penguins defensemen, brought down by having a 2.63% shooting percentage for the Pens while Maatta has been on the ice. Even then, Maatta’s points/60 at even strength is #2 on the team behind Matt Niskanen right now. When it comes to skating and moving the puck, Maatta already out-shines Engelland and Bortuzzo. A look at zone exit data shows Maatta is on par with Martin and has been moving the puck more frequently, for his ice-time, than just about anyone on the team. He’s made some good decisions with the puck and hasn’t looked out of place at the NHL level.
Worry about the future in the future
Keeping Maatta this week only means that the first year of his entry level contract will tick off, and will expire after the 2015-16 season. By that point, the salary cap will be raised higher than it is now, and Maatta still won’t have arbitration rights, meaning the Pens are going to be able to leverage him into signing an attractive contract, perhaps even like Montreal did with PK Subban, with the numbers adjusted down, assuming that Maatta won’t be a Norris Trophy winner.
The Pens can still move a lot around- they could consider letting Maatta go play for Finland at the World Junior Championships around Christmas time. Doing that, they could probably stretch his 40th NHL game (where one year would accrue towards becoming an unrestricted free agent) close to the Olympic break, where maybe then they decide to send Maatta back to juniors for the rest of the season, instead of staying inactive for three weeks.
Regardless, there are a lot of moving pieces and issues to consider with regard to Olli Maatta.
The simple fact boils down to this kid, right now, is one of the team’s top six defensemen. He has been and can continue help the team win. And unlike Bortuzzo and Engelland, Olli Maatta is going to be a lot better of a player a week, a month and a year from now if he gets to keep playing in NHL games, participating in the speed of NHL practices, receive NHL coaching and continue to stay on the team.
There’s a lot to like about Olli Maatta, and it should be this season.