Defenseman Maatta, 19, making case to stay with Pens past trial period
Is defenseman Olli Maatta here to stay?
His teammates wouldn't mind.
Maatta, the 19-year-old whose two-way play has impressed through three NHL games, will either be returned to London (Ontario Hockey League) in two weeks or will stay with the Penguins all season.
Recently, it was widely assumed Maatta was only in Pittsburgh for a nine-game trial, at which time he would return to the OHL.
His play through three games is making many believe he belongs in the NHL now.
“I'm very impressed,” said left wing Jussi Jokinen, a fellow Finn.
“You know, I wanted him to feel as comfortable as possible when camp started. But after the first week, I saw that I didn't have to say anything anymore.”
Maatta recorded two assists in Tuesday's 5-2 victory over Carolina and played a near-flawless defensive game.
Assistant coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the team's defensemen, believes Maatta is equipped to stay at the NHL level.
“The signals right now are that he can play at this level,” Reirden said. “At this point, it's easy to make the statement that he belongs.”
According to Reirden, the process is riding an upward swing.
“He was real solid in his first game,”Reirden said. “Very good in his second game, and even better in his last game. You could say he's headed in the right direction.”
Keeping Maatta in the NHL likely would require some roster tinkering.
When healthy, the Penguins have seven defensemen — Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, Robert Bortuzzo and Derek Engelland — along with Simon Despres, who is currently playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the AHL.
Shipping Maatta back to the OHL for one more season might seem sensible, given the Penguins would preserve a year of his entry-level contract and are already stacked with talent on the blue line.
But even the veterans agree that Maatta has exceeded expectations.
“You see little things he does well,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “It's stuff you see 10-year veterans do.”
Orpik and fellow veteran Rob Scuderi warned that Maatta can't be judged yet because he has only played three games. Both defensemen, along with coach Dan Bylsma and Reirden, agree that the upcoming road trip should be an interesting test for the rookie.
Without the luxury of making the last change, the Penguins could find themselves playing Maatta and fellow youngster Bortuzzo against the likes of Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos on this trip.
“I think Olli has been unbelievable for a guy that young,” Scuderi said. “Just fantastic. But to me, it's too early to judge just yet. The big test will be when the adversity comes. And it comes for everyone.”
Scuderi, though, senses something special about Maatta.
“And when that adversity comes,” Scuderi said, “I think he's going to handle it very well.”
London, incidentally, acquired defenseman Brady Austin, a Sabres draft pick, from the Belleville Bulls on Wednesday.
Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero haven't shed any light on their plans for Maatta.
“I try not to pay attention to the situation,” Maatta said. “But it's always there.”
If Maatta has it his way, he'll always be in Pittsburgh.
“He defines a two-way defenseman,” Reirden said. “He creates offense, and he's been so good defensively.”
His teammates wouldn't mind if Maatta stays in Pittsburgh for good.
“He's making this a very hard decision for the team,” Jokinen said.
Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.
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