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Penguins coaches marvel at Maatta's work ethic, ability to learn

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, 10:15 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Olli Maatta plays against the Canucks on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

EDMONTON, Alberta – Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden already had a pretty good idea that rookie defenseman Olli Maatta was special.

Then Nov. 16 came, and he knew.

In a weekend that was otherwise forgettable — the Penguins predictably handled a fatigued Nashville team at Consol Energy Center on Nov. 15 before predictably losing in New Jersey the next night — Maatta took the final step in convincing Reirden that, at 19, he belonged.

The Penguins' morning skate in Newark, N.J., had been cancelled, but while Reirden was working at Prudential Center that morning, he was surprised to see Maatta appear.

“He didn't need to be there that morning,” Reirden said. “But he wanted to be there because he always wants to get better. We had a long talk that morning, right outside of the locker room.”

Maatta seems impervious to the distractions that someone his age in the NHL must confront. But on that morning, something was on his mind.

The night before, against Nashville, Finnish legend Jari Kurri — the general manager of Team Finland — visited Pittsburgh to see Maatta play. Maatta knew the Finnish brass was in attendance.

“It was his poorest game of the year,” Reirden said. “That's why we talked in Jersey. He wanted to be so much better. And that's the thing about him. He always seems to rebound.”

As fate would have it, Maatta was made a healthy scratch when the Penguins returned to New Jersey on Dec. 31. In the three subsequent games, he has recorded two assists, a plus-two rating and has impressed the coaching staff.

“I was very disappointed at the time,” Maatta said. “I wanted to play. But now, looking back at it, I think I probably needed that little break to think about my game.”

Reirden said that, if the Penguins top six defensemen are healthy entering the playoffs, the current plan is to play Maatta with Matt Niskanen. The two have developed an instant chemistry, and Niskanen credits Maatta for “not getting rattled by anything.”

In what must qualify as an unusual pleasure for a hockey coach, there is a small part of Reirden that enjoys seeing Maatta get beaten by a forward.

As though Maatta is almost offended by the concept of losing possession of a puck or losing track of a forward, the teenager almost always snatches the puck right back.

“It's pretty amazing,” Reirden said. “Watch him when he loses a puck. Just watch him. Watch the battle level rise. He's different than other players in a lot of ways, and that's one of the big ones. It's imbedded in him. When he gets beat, the puck still has a way of staying around him. And he'll win the next battle every time.”

Reirden marvels at other Maatta attributes, namely his ability to absorb knowledge. The Penguins work with their defensemen on many facets, like skating with their heads up in the neutral zone and looking one way while passing another. From the first time Reirden trained Maatta to look off the opposition while making a pass, he's excelled.

“Oh man,” Reirden said. “That he's learned those habits this quickly is unbelievable.”

Reirden knows Maatta is going to have other bad games, that he'll make his share of mistakes. He is, after all, 19. But the faith the Penguins have in the youngster is real.

“There isn't much else that can be said about him,” forward Joe Vitale said. “Special.”

Reirden agrees.

“I still think about that talk we had in Jersey,” Reirden said. “I could talk about Olli for a long time.”

He'll have every opportunity to do just that.

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