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Kovacevic: Maatta made Penguins' call easy

| Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013, 10:35 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby celebrates with Olli Maatta after Maatta's first NHL goal against the Canucks on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

It's all just so easy with Olli Maatta.

Anyone wanting to fully appreciate what it meant for the Penguins to announce Thursday that they're keeping their precocious 19-year-old defenseman in the NHL this season, pull up a locker stool and start right there.

Everything about this kid, from a chip up the boards to a 50-foot breakout to a one-timed blast to his broader ascent through the sport across two hemispheres … it's all just so elementary, so effortless.

“Maybe,” Maatta playfully conceded in our talk Thursday at Southpointe. “But I don't really think about it that way.”

Of course he doesn't.

Probably never has.

Flash back to his Finnish past: Maatta was a toddler in the modest but growing education hub of Jyväskylä, brought up the same as most children there.

“Lots of sports for everybody,” he recalled. “Mostly soccer and hockey.”

Maatta was missing half of that. He'd begun soccer at age 4 and, despite early success, that didn't satisfy.

“I was 6 years old, almost 7, and I would look out the window and see my friends playing hockey in the winter. I wanted to be like them. I remember going to my mom crying about it.”

So tough call for the folks?

“Oh, no,” he came back with a grin. “I didn't give them a choice.”

Of course not.

By the time he turned 14, Maatta had to choose between soccer and hockey.

“I loved hockey. That was easy.”

Of course it was.

Put it all together, in fact, and you get this: Maatta didn't play hockey until he was 7, which is, as he'll confirm, “really old.” He didn't fully commit until 14, which is crazy old. But by 16, he became the youngest player ever for Finland in the World Junior Championships. The following season, he was a man-child in Finland's second-tier pro league. And the season after that, once the Penguins drafted him 22nd overall in 2012, he led all Ontario Hockey League rookie defensemen in scoring.

All that's in five years, a tantalizing trajectory for the most elite of prospects.

Now carry the narrative into this fall.

Maatta had virtually no chance to stick on the Penguins' roster, counter to whatever they'd stated publicly. He ranked no higher than eighth on the depth chart, and even more ominous were NHL rules restricting junior players and salary-cap considerations for years to come.

But then Kris Letang was hurt late in camp, Maatta excelled in the opening nine games and, just in time for the 10th game that marked the Penguins' deadline to keep him or send him back to the OHL, Letang and Maatta will take the ice Friday night against the New York Islanders.

As Shero put it, “What are the chances?”

Probably pretty good, actually. Maatta's special. The Penguins know it and, in his own understated way, I think he knows it, too.

Don't misunderstand. He was blushing like a beet through that baby-ish face Thursday when teammates tapped their sticks on the ice to celebrate Dan Bylsma telling the group that Maatta was staying. But he also didn't flinch when I asked the following:

Did he feel he'd earned this opportunity?

“For sure. I feel like I worked hard for this.”

Did he really believe he had a shot?

“Yeah, we talked about it, and I knew what was going on. I just had to do by best.”

Was there any one game where he first felt like he truly belonged?

“Not one game, no. It's every game. Every game I'm out there, I feel more confident.”

Like that line?

It's that level of poise, on and off the rink, that's won over so many so quickly.

Listen to Sidney Crosby: “He's got a great all-around game, and all you see is that he keeps getting better. It's been great to see.”

Listen to Brooks Orpik, as tough as any veteran for a rookie to win over: “I'm so happy for him. He deserves it. I mean, there will be down moments, and I hope people keep that in focus. But with his talent and work ethic, I don't think those stretches will last too long.”

They all saw it. The coaching staff began lobbying for Maatta after the second game. Crosby told me the players were convinced “after just four or five.” And ultimately, over the past week, Shero and his evaluators realized that Maatta had cornered them like a common forechecker.

Good for Maatta, but better, I say, for the Penguins.

They wouldn't paint it this way, but this is a team that's still built off the same then-young core that won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and that core is now in its late 20s. It's needed not just new blood but new elite blood for far too long.

This kid is exactly that, and I dare say it's easy to see.

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