Pens confirm Maatta will stay
Olli Maatta earned it.
Maatta, a 19-year-old defenseman, will play for the Penguins against the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center on Friday night. That will mark his 10th NHL game and trigger this as the first season on his entry-level contract.
“The more he was around our team, the more he played, I think this was the place for him at this time,” general manager Ray Shero said Thursday after meeting with Maatta and coach Dan Bylsma.
The Tribune-Review reported Saturday night that Maatta would stay with the Penguins beyond the nine-game threshold. He is one of four 19-year-old players slated to play at least a 10th game.
“It doesn't really change anything right now,” Maatta said. “It's gone good so far, so why try to change anything? Just focus on the next game.”
Maatta, who has averaged more than 15 minutes of ice time while scoring a goal and recording two assists, is not necessarily a lock to spend the entire season in the NHL, Shero said.
“We'll see how it goes,” Shero said. “Physically he seems ready for the challenge. It's a step in his career that I think he's ready for, and we'll continue to look at it as we go down the line.”
If Maatta remains on the roster for the Penguins' 40th game — at Carolina on Dec. 27 — this will count as an accrued season and start Maatta toward arbitration eligibility and, potentially, unrestricted free agency at 25.
Maatta cannot play in the minors this season because of an agreement between the NHL and junior hockey.
The Penguins can return Maatta to his junior club, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, at any time. However, if returned to London, Maatta could not play again for the Penguins until late in the Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin April 16 — also because of that NHL-junior hockey agreement.
Returning to his junior club would make Maatta ineligible to play for the Penguins until London's season is complete. The Knights play host to the Memorial Cup, which runs from May 16-25.
A more immediate date of note regarding Maatta is Dec. 26 — start of the World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. Maatta was projected to play a pivotal role for Finland in the tournament, which runs until Jan. 5, 2014.
A junior player can play in the World Junior Championship and be recalled to the NHL.
Generally, Penguins management views the World Junior Championship as a valuable developmental experience.
Immeasurably valuable to Maatta's development, Shero said, is coaching Maatta can receive from the likes of Penguins assistants Todd Reirden and Jacques Martin.
Also, Shero said, the Penguins are spending to the salary cap ($64.3 million) for a seventh consecutive season.
“I'm going to worry about now, what's best for the team and make my decisions based on that,” Shero said.
Maatta deepens the Penguins at a position often tested by injuries. Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy (top defenseman) finalist last season, has yet to play because of a right-knee injury.
Letang's return — he is expected to play Friday — will give the Penguins eight defensemen, with Robert Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland serving as extras. Clubs usually carry seven defensemen, and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has said carrying two extras is not ideal.
The Penguins may have found a way around that because of Engelland's willingness to play as a checking-line winger, as he did in two of three previous contests.
Shero described Engelland, a reputable physical presence, as “an asset to us, an asset in the league.”
“The ability to have him do both is a benefit to us and to him for his career,” Shero said.
Maatta has practiced the past two days with Matt Niskanen as his defense partner.
In early July, after the Penguins re-acquired Rob Scuderi as a free agent, Niskanen presumed his days were numbered because of a salary-cap crunch.
In early September, Maatta was “not outstanding” during a prospect tournament, Shero said.
It is late October, and Niskanen and Maatta comprise what Penguins coaches believe is an intriguing third defensive pairing.
“Not many people saw this coming,” Niskanen said.