For years, the Pittsburgh Penguins have placed a premium on drafting, signing or acquiring top-tier defensemen. Some of them – like Alex Goligoski and Joe Morrow – have been used as assets to fill other needs. Others who have come up through the Penguins’ system are now knocking on the door of being ready for full-time NHL work, and it’s created a logjam on the Pittsburgh blueline, with eight healthy defensemen on the roster and at least one more hoping to break in.
Nine games into the season, 19-year-old Olli Maatta has established himself as one of the Penguins’ top six D. The team announced Thursday that the Finnish blueliner would stay on past his nine-game tryout period, allowing the first of his three-year entry-level contract to kick in at an $894,167 cap hit. Maatta can still be sent back to his junior team at any time during the season; if he stays with the Penguins past 39 games, the year will count toward his unrestricted free agent eligibility.
“Based on his play, we believe this is the best decision for Olli and the Penguins,” said GM Ray Shero, who thanked Maatta’s junior team, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, for their understanding.
Maatta has collected three points (1G, 2A) in his nine games with the team so far, but the Penguins have been most impressed with a poise, confidence and work ethic well beyond his age and experience level.
“I think the thing that’s impressed me the most is, he comes in and he’s obviously a confident kid with the way he plays, but I think that confidence comes from his work ethic and how he prepares,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “For a kid his age, I’ve never seen a kid work as hard as this kid off the ice. And it also comes with zero ego, which is refreshing these days.”
“He’s a very smart player for how young he is. Knows his position; he’s very capable,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who was paired with Maatta in practice sessions this week. “He’s very professional – puts a lot of time in the gym, on the ice he works on little skills all the time, tries to get better. That just carries over to his performance in the games; you can tell he really is prepared.”
Maatta said that, although he knew things were going well, he couldn’t help being anxious as his nine-game tryout period expired with Monday’s 1-0 loss against the Colorado Avalanche.
“Of course I was nervous about it,” he said. “It feels awesome; I’m really excited. It’s always been my dream to play in the NHL and now it’s happening.
“I feel like I’ve worked hard for this, but I have to keep working hard to get better. I feel really good about earning a spot here. Every game I’ve gotten more comfortable and more confident that I could play at this level.”
Maatta’s management has noticed that, too.
“The poise and the confidence that Olli carries himself with, plays with and brings to practice is fairly unique for my experience with young players in [my] past 25 years of pro hockey,” said head coach Dan Bylsma.
“He doesn’t succumb to the pressures of [being] a young player and playing a difficult position in tougher spots. He hasn’t responded [negatively] to mistakes or tough situations with the game closing in on him and getting difficult; he’s made a couple of mistakes and gone on to play really good third periods. He goes back, defends well and skates the puck out of the D zone. He just plays with a ton of poise that it’s pretty rare to see in a 19-year-old.”
The decision on Maatta coincided with the announcement that Kris Letang, who’s been out with a lower-body injury since the preseason, is expected to return Friday against the New York Islanders. Letang, the 26-year-old, offensive-minded Norris Trophy finalist, will skate alongside Rob Scuderi, the 34-year-old defensive blueliner the team reacquired over the offseason.
With Orpik and Paul Martin forming the remaining pair, two big, physical blueliners were left on the outside looking in – 6-foot-2, 215-pound Deryk Engelland, 31, who continues to see time as a fourth-line winger, and 6-foot-4, 215-pound Robert Bortuzzo, 24, who has made a positive impression so far this season and shown himself to be ready for steady work at the NHL level.
Also waiting in the wings is Simon Despres, the 22-year-old defenseman who was expected to compete for a spot in the top four this year, but was sent down to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton due to a combination of the logjam on the blueline, not having to clear waivers and an inconsistent training camp and preseason.
As their three injured forwards begin to return to the lineup – likely starting with Matt D’Agostini, who returned to practice this week – the Penguins may not have the luxury, from a roster spot or salary cap perspective, of carrying eight defensemen for long.
“Yeah, a lot of speculation out there,” Niskanen said. “That’s OK. What do you do? I just worried about getting ready for camp, getting ready for the season, and it’s up to management. I’m just here to play for as long as I’m here and do the best I can, but happy I’m still here.
“We have a lot of depth in this organization. That’s good for all of us – good competition, there’s a lot of guys trying to make the team and guys trying to play more. Competition in the group is a good thing, and we’ll have that moving forward.”