The Pittsburgh Penguins blue chip D prospect Olli Maatta played in his 9th NHL game yesterday, so now the decision has to be made on whether to keep him around the NHL for even longer or whether to send him back to his junior club the OHL London Knights. If he stays on the roster, even if he is scratched and doesn't play, when the puck drops on Friday he will burn into the first year of his Entry Level Contract.
What is best for Maatta developmentally?
The Pens already have quite the stacked blue line as it is. Kris Letang, once he is healthy enough to play, is one of the best in the league. The rest of our Top 4 is pretty solidly entrenched with Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, and Rob Scuderi. And recently Matt Niskanen has proven that he is good enough to be a Top 4 D as well, so his spot in the lineup is firmly in place.
If Maatta were to remain, he would be fighting for the 6th D spot with both Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland. That means that some nights he would be watching from the press box rather than playing. The big thing is that he needs to play, and developmentally it wouldn't be good for either Maatta or Bortuzzo to be splitting duties as the #6 D.
And even on nights that he is in the lineup, he would be getting sheltered minutes and extremely limited TOI. He already barely sees any PK time, but with everybody healthy he will also no longer be needed on the PP. However, up in London he would be the top D, and quite likely would get to wear the C this year, while playing on the top PP and PK units. Not only would he get to play every night, but he would get to play more and in more challenging situations.
What is best for the Penguins?
The Penguins are in a constant "Win Now" mode, so would keeping Maatta improve their chances of hoisting the Cup this year? The Pens have said that they do not like to keep 8 D, because there is not enough ice time to go around. So if they kept Maatta it would likely have to be at the expense of another roster D. Martin and Niskanen, the most likely candidates for a trade, have had their fair share of issues, but wouldn't the Penguins be more likely to succeed with a veteran presence going into the playoffs rather than a rookie who will likely get even less ice time once the pressure is on?
Right now, with Letang injured, Maatta is the Penguins 6th best NHL defenseman. There may be some argument as to whether him or Bortuzzo are better, and in the long term Maatta has a much higher upside, but right now Bortuzzo is better and he has earned his sweater this season. So once Letang returns that makes Maatta the 7th best NHL D, and that's not even counting the ones biding their time in the AHL waiting for a chance for a call-up from WBS. There are a few that are arguably ahead of Maatta right now, but are in the AHL simply by virtue of their contract status.
And that isn't even thinking about the future of the team. Keeping Maatta burns a year of his ELC, which means he would be up for a pricy extension 1 year sooner than he would be if they sent him back to London. And if he remains on the roster that practically guarantees other promising D prospects like Brian Dumoulin and Simon Despres wouldn't get a chance to play in the NHL this season. In the long term the Pens would be better off giving all three of them, and Bortuzzo, every chance of succeeding and continuing to develop this year. And that isn't going to happen if Maatta stays in the NHL.
What does he have left to prove in the OHL?
Some argue that Maatta's development will be derailed by sending him back down to London. I don't buy that, he will get regular playing time with one of the best defensive systems in the country, if that derails his progress it says more about Maatta than anything we could learn about him in the NHL. And while there are aspects of his game that make him good enough to be a 3rd pair D in the NHL right now, he still has areas that need work if he expects to become a Top 4 D in the future. And he has more to prove in the Juniors still. He has never been a Captain, nor been the top D, and he is still chasing that elusive Memorial Cup.
Maatta still has some areas that need work, and he is far better off getting regular playing time in London rather than fighting for minutes as a #6/7 D in the NHL. If Letang is ready to return then there is no real reason to keep him in Pittsburgh.