Every off-season teams around the NHL make changes to improve their roster. For some it ?s a trade or a free agent, for others it ?s a generational talent acquired in the entry draft. For the Pittsburgh Penguins it has become a story of getting injured players back. While this Penguins’ off-season was highlighted by the acquisitions of Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino, as well as the loss of Paul Martin and Brandon Sutter, the biggest moves this team may make will be internal, highlighted by the return of injured players.
I previously discussed the return of Pascal Dupuis earlier this off-season. The engine that kept this team pumping with a lot of heart and hard work will be back. On the other side of the ice, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta will highlight the those returning to the blueline that missed significant time due to injuries last season. While Dupuis is a bit of a question mark, as he can move up and down the line-up, Letang and Maatta will be almost assuredly slotted in as the top defensive pairing for the 2015-2016 season. With Letang this is nothing new, as the former Norris Trophy Finalist is known for being the team’s best defenseman, but it is Maatta whose return may make the biggest impact.
At 21 years old, the Finnish phenom that came out of seemingly nowhere at the start of the 2013-2014 campaign is ready and poised to make the biggest impact on the Penguins’ blueline. His vision, skill, and yes a little bit of offense are more than enough to prove he belongs alongside Letang on the team’s top defensive unit. To some this may be surprising, after all he was written as low as fourth on the Penguins’ deep blueline in the summer of 2013, but a quick look at his resume at every level of highly competitive hockey serves as a crystal ball for the kind of player Maatta truly is.
The Jyv skyl , Finland native is the youngest defenseman (only Aleksander Barkov made the team younger as a forward) to make the Finnish World Junior Championship squad at just 17. Known for his hockey IQ and vision, Maatta is the perfect pairing partner for the offensively gifted Letang. He blocks shots and plays a stick on puck style that surely made Paul Martin proud over the years.
In 2011, he was the first choice in the Canadian Hockey League’s import draft selected by the London Knights. The next two seasons saw Maatta lead the team, and at times the entire CHL, in defensive scoring. Both years that Maatta dressed for the Knights, the London junior squad won the CHL championship. In his rookie season, 2011-2012, Maatta paced the Knights in playoff scoring with 23 points in just 19 games.
The final 2012 draft preview ranked Maatta at 8th overall of North America’s skaters. The Pittsburgh Penguins took the player, whose draft profile said he needed to improve his one-on-one coverage of highly skilled players, with their second 1st round pick. He was seen as a bit of a project by most, coming in behind highly touted prospects Brian Dumoulin, Derrick Pouliot (who the Penguins selected with their first 1st round selection in 2012), and already in the fold Simon Despres.
Maatta must not have heard them. Following one more year in juniors, during which he was injured and missed all of the World Junior a Championship tournament with a concussion, the youngster doubled down on his efforts. When he came into prospect camp and then training camp he blew everyone away and forced a coach notorious for preferring older AHL-seasoned players to keep him on first for ten games, then the rest of the 2013-14 season.
By early 2014 Maatta was an NHL regular and was selected as a teenager to head to the Olympics for team Finland. While there he led all defenseman in scoring against the world’s best and helped bring home a bronze medal for his home country. He didn’t just surpass expectations in that first season; he took a sledgehammer and crushed them.
Of course what goes up must come down and in 2014-2015 the sophomore season that had started so promising became a lead balloon. First, Maatta had to have a cancerous tumor removed from his thyroid and missed two weeks before he re-injured the shoulder he had repaired in the 2014 offseason, causing him to be shelved for the remainder of the year in December. Add in a case of the mumps and no one was ready for 2015 quite like Olli Maatta.
Now with all this experience on and off the ice, Maatta is ready for year three. In this his final year of an entry level contract, Maatta will take on a bigger role than ever before. Following the departure of Paul Martin look for 3 to see time with the second unit power play and expanded penalty kill time, where his shot blocking and stick on puck plays will shine their brightest.
He probably won’t ever lead the Penguins’ defense in scoring, but Maatta will continue to develop his offensive skills while honing his play in his own zone.
Still skeptical? Look at these numbers. In their rookie seasons, Olli Maatta and 2014 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad had similar numbers. The Penguins rookie tallied 29 points including 9 goals and 20 assists in 78 games with a 7.7 shooting percentage. Ekblad, who won the 2015 rookie of the year award and has been touted as the next Nick Lidstrom, tallied 39 points including 12 goals and 27 assists in 81 games with a 7.1 shooting percentage. Maatta’s HERO chart illustrates he already plays largely like a top-pairing player and his plus/minus in that first full season was a very respectable +8.
Offense, defense, skating and hockey IQ, these are just a few of the reasons Olli Maatta may very well be the most important player the Penguins will get coming into this 2015-2016 season.