Penguins to show future on defense with pairing of Letang, Maatta
By Rob Rossi
Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, 1:10 p.m.
The Flyers are about to face their rival's future.
The Penguins will finally play another home game — their first in 12 days — against Philadelphia on Wednesday night, and this installment of the Commonwealth Cold War may eventually be remembered as the first time Olli Maatta and Kris Letang partnered up.
“It is something we saw a little bit of in training camp, and anticipate that maybe being the case down the road as Olli develops,” coach Dan Bylsma said after practice at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday.
Maatta did not participate. He was excused to sign a new work permit.
Only 19 and still with junior-hockey eligibility, Maatta is one of only three defensemen to play in every game for the Penguins.
His first month was about earning more than an audition. He did, starting the clock on his entry-level contract.
His next contractual barrier toward sticking with the Penguins the entire season is 39 — the maximum number of games he can play before this seasons counts as his first towards arbitration.
The Penguins plan to keep Maatta if he continues showing he can handle NHL life, and pairing him with Letang would provide a significant test. Letang's pairing usually plays at even strength against the opposition's second scoring line and often with Sidney Crosby's top line for the Penguins.
Maatta, as a third-pairing defenseman, has not consistently had those pressure-packed responsibilities. However, with a steady diet of nearly 15 minutes per game, Maatta has shown he is ready for prime time.
Success as Letang's partner — even if only while Paul Martin (lower body) is injured — could convince coaches and management that Maatta is ready for the big time, as in a top-four defensive role, earlier than anticipated.
If he is ready for that, he is ready to stay for the season.
Adapting to Letang is a challenge, though.
“He's more aggressive ... has the ability to read plays and see open ice that a lot of other defensemen don't even think to look for,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “When he sees an opportunity to jump in a hole, he's looking to go.
“Playing with him, you've just got to be aware he might not be in the conventional spot all the time. Recently, I've tried to just have one eye on him all the time — just so I can know where he is to either support him or back him up.”
Letang has scored three goals, though only recorded one assist, in eight games since returning from a right-knee injury that kept him from playing in the opening nine contests.
He was the only NHL defenseman to average a point-per-game last season, and by no coincidence he finished as a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
The Penguins thought enough of Letang to award him a significant raise — from $3.5 million to $7.25 million — on an eight-year contract that begins next season. It includes a clause that limits the team's ability to trade Letang.
General manager Ray Shero — schooled in roster building by Nashville's David Poile, whose clubs have usually featured elite players on top defense pairings — supplemented his investment in Letang with the offseason-signing of Rob Scuderi, a veteran reputable for his defensive approach.
Scuderi is out until at least early December because of a broken ankle. He and Letang have played together in fewer than four periods, though that will change when both players are healthy.
Until then, and perhaps starting Wednesday night, Letang's future is with Maatta — 16 months removed from being the 22nd overall draft pick in 2012 — as his partner.
“Olli Maatta is not Rob Scuderi just yet in his development, but he's similar in terms of his solid defending, being good down low and simple play,” Bylsma said. “Given our pairs right now, where we're at, that's a pairing we're looking to have.”
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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