Olli Maatta might be one of the best all-around defensemen on the Pittsburgh Penguins' roster as it stands right now. He certainly has the look of a top-pairing blue liner in the not-too-distant future. At just 19, he's already displayed calm and polish far exceeding his years.
Just imagine how high he'll stand above his peers when he's sent back to the OHL next week.
Maatta, five games into his NHL career just one year after having been drafted 22nd overall by the Penguins, is stirring the kind of chatter then-rookie Jordan Staal created in 2007, where a standout showing in his pro tryout period led the Penguins to keep him in the NHL at the expense of precious entry-level contract years. Maatta has four games left to prove his mettle before management has to make a decision regarding his future.
It makes for a great story and some very good hockey. However well he plays, though, the numbers have already made the decision for them.
Recall that, before a spate of injuries near the end of the preseason, the Penguins were scrambling to get their roster below the truncated $64.3 million salary cap ceiling. The demotion of Simon Despres and Tomas Vokoun's LTIR status have helped the team to get out of the red, so to speak, but neither situation is a good season-long solution. Despres is too talented to spend another full year in the AHL and Vokoun, health permitting, is going to resume his place on the roster.
A quick look at the indispensable CapGeek shows the Penguins with virtually $0 in cap space. Vokoun's LTIR designation and some other bits of creative accounting are all that are keeping the team legal. Adding Maatta's $894,167 salary to the roster won't help financially, even though he can help the club along the blue line.
Retaining Maatta this season means moving someone in his stead.
Maatta's London Knights have won back-to-back OHL championships with he and fellow Penguins defense prospect Scott Harrington for a top pairing. Even if Maatta does have nothing left to gain by remaining in junior hockey, the Penguins certainly have something to lose by keeping him aboard the big club.
The question the Penguins need to ask is whether having Maatta is worth the cost of whoever must be lost at his expense.
In the short term, the obvious candidates are Deryk Engelland and Matt Niskanen. Engelland, 31 and in the final year of his contract, has plateau'd as a seventh defenseman on a team with seven top-six caliber defenders. His contract comes in at some $320,000 less than Maatta's, making a one-for-one salary swap no sure thing.
As for Niskanen? He's an expensive fifth-defenseman at $2.3 million per year. He's also in the last year of his contract. The Penguins don't allow many players to get to the summer in limbo. One imagines Niskanen will be traded or signed to an extension. That depends on whether he is in the Penguins' long-term plans.
In the right now, Niskanen is playing some of the best hockey of his career. He's got five points in as many games, leads the team with a plus-7 rating and, with Letang back on injured reserve, is playing the kind of reliable swiss-army knife game he has quietly produced in each of the last two seasons.
Niskanen is either a trade chip at the highest of his possible sell-high heights, or a comfortable asset to fall back on when Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin come calling for contract extensions or see-you-later's in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
Maatta possesses a ceiling that Niskanen does not, but the rookie simply isn't as well equipped to help the Pens battle through this year's compressed Olympic schedule and, Fleury willing, an extended slog in the NHL's marathon postseason.
Niskanen's got 415 NHL games under his belt and is only 26 years old. Three of the Penguins' top-four defensemen are 32 or older. On a one-for-one basis, it's hard to see Maatta playing Niskanen out of town.
All of this fails to mention the time that will be burned off Maatta's ELC should the Penguins decide to keep him aboard.
The team's core defensemen are old. Martin is 32 years old and has two years left on his current deal. Orpik is 33 and in a contract year. Rob Scuderi, signed through 2017, will be 38 when his latest contract expires.
Gradually, these guys will have to be replaced with the defensive talent the Penguins have made a clockwork habit of drafting. Harrington, Derrick Pouliot and Brian Dumoulin look like future mainstays and Despres, for all his taxi squad treatment in recent years, has the pure stuff to be a top-two defenseman.
It's a promising core, and Maatta's early play suggests he can firmly hold a spot amongst that group.
The Penguins, so long as they have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the fat revenues of season-long sellouts and a sweetheart television deal, will always spend near the upper limits of the salary cap.
Giving away future salary leverage for a player who is only 19 and by no means irreplaceable isn't exactly a page out of the Ray Shero playbook.
Maatta may only add $900,000 to the roster, but saving that kind of money now is no small deal (not to mention the kind of bargain he'll be in the final year of the ELC). Maatta just might be NHL ready, but ask Shero what he could have done with an extra $900,000 to start this season.
There's an adage that holds that the safest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket. Maatta, indeed, looks great. But the Penguins intend to compete for the Cup in every year of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era -- not just five games into a season.
Putting Maatta back in their pocket, so to speak, will make for a greater payday down the road.
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