Rossi: Partnership with Letang awaits Pens' young star Maatta
Ray Shero has found wingers for captain Sidney Crosby and fellow franchise center Evgeni Malkin.
Now it appears he has taken care of Kris Letang, the Penguins' back-end pillar.
Olli Maatta will be for Letang what Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are for Crosby, what James Neal is for Evgeni Malkin: the fit, the partner, The Guy.
Coaches see that happening as soon as next season. Management sees a Maatta-Letang pairing as the Penguins' version of what Ryan Suter-Shea Weber was for Nashville, what Weber and rookie Seth Jones will be for the Predators.
Letang noted this week he has never had a permanent partner.
Shero has long sought one. That was behind his free-agent pursuits of Dan Hamhuis (2010) and Suter (2012).
Shero was mostly schooled in the art of general managing by David Poile, under whom he worked while in Nashville. Poile, during his runs with Washington and Nashville, has built from the blue line out — and most often his clubs have achieved success on the strength of a deep defense corps anchored by a top pairing of elite players.
It is part of Shero's DNA to construct a dominant defense.
That is why Penguins ownership's decision seven years ago to hand him the keys to an organization blessed with Crosby and Malkin made total sense. Within three years of taking control of the Penguins' hockey operations, Shero had transformed the blue line into one that could go nine players deep on a run to the Stanley Cup.
That ninth player, Alex Goligoski, was such a prized young player that Shero traded him for Neal and Matt Niskanen.
Shero has spent the past three years attempting to build another Cup champion by rebuilding a defense corps to match the Penguins' awesome offensive arsenal.
He has taken all available avenues: free agency (Paul Martin, 2010, and Rob Scuderi, 2013); trades (Niskanen, 2011); and keeping his own (Letang, 2013). Shero also has drafted defensively: four first- or second-round picks used on defensemen since 2011.
Maatta was part of a 2012 NHL Entry Draft opening day that may go down as Shero's Hall of Fame thesis. On June 22, 2012, Shero acquired Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin and Harrison Ruopp — four defensemen who, barring trades, could be playing regularly for the Penguins in two years.
Pouliot, the eighth overall draft pick, was viewed by outsiders as the great get because of his offensive upside.
Maatta, the 22nd pick, was viewed by Penguins brass as a potential franchise defenseman because of his two-way play.
It is early, but Maatta looks like that kind of player.
Letang thinks so. It is why he spent the past two months lobbying coaches to keep Maatta instead of returning him to junior hockey.
“He can't develop better there,” Letang said. “He needs to play in the NHL. He is more ready than I was at his age. He needs to be here against the best players, around our coaches, because that will make him the player he can be.”
Letang is convinced Maatta will become an elite player.
Shero has been looking for one of those for Letang, to whom he recently committed $58 million for the next eight years.
Shero's view of Letang has always been the sky is the limit.
“Kris is a very good player, and his best days are ahead of him,” Shero said. “I think he'll probably win the Norris Trophy. He is that kind of player for us.”
Imagine what Letang will do with Maatta.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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