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Penguins believe defenseman Maatta deserves top rookie consideration

| Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, 10:18 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Olli Maatta plays against the Camadiens in the first period Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014 at Consol Energy Center.

History says Olli Maatta has little chance to win the Calder Trophy.

His teammates believe he should be strongly considered.

Maatta, the smooth 19-year-old defenseman whose two-way game has blown away the Penguins' coaching staff and his teammates, enters Thursday's game in Los Angeles on quite a roll.

He also plays in a league that has given the Calder Trophy — awarded annually to the league's best rookie — to a defenseman just 10 times in nine decades.

“The biggest reason it hasn't happened more is because it's rare to establish yourself at a young age at this position,” defenseman Paul Martin said. “It's harder for defensemen.”

Maatta, though, continues to make believers out of the Penguins. He has 19 points and is a plus-10 through 52 games while being called for only six minor penalties.

“He absolutely deserves consideration,” Martin said. “That's how good he's been.”

His solid early play was only an appetizer to Maatta's dependable work while the Penguins played without five defensemen for a lengthy stretch in December, putting him on the top pairing against some of the game's best.

And now, the offensive facets of his game are blossoming. Maatta has produced two goals and five assists — none of which have been aided by the power play — during his past 10 games.

“The last time I saw a rookie defenseman have this kind of an impact was Rob Blake with the Kings (during the 1990-'91 season),” assistant coach Tony Granato said. “We've asked him to do more than we ever ask rookies to do: top unit, playing against the top players, killing penalties, playing the power play.

“And he does it all so well. He's like no rookie I've ever seen. It's a remarkable thing.”

Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, leads all rookies with 35 points. Others, such as Florida's Aleksander Barkov, San Jose's Tomas Hertl, and even a trio of productive defensemen — Boston's Torey Krug, Anaheim's Hampus Lindholm and Nashville's Seth Jones — have impressed.

The Penguins believe Maatta's steady play has gone overlooked.

“I don't follow other players around the league and their numbers all that much,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who regularly is paired with Maatta. “But I know this: I know how good Olli has been this year, and I know what he's done.

“It's easier for forwards. Maybe putting up huge numbers isn't easy, but you have to consider what Olli's been asked to do. And he keeps getting better.”

Maatta's humble attitude made him a hit in the locker room.

“I don't care about personal awards,” Maatta said. “I really, really don't. My dream is to win a Stanley Cup. That's what I want to do.”

Maatta probably has a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup than the Calder Trophy. Of the 10 defensemen to win the award, five are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Then again, no one is putting anything past Maatta.

“He's in a groove right now,” Niskanen said. “He wants the puck. And when someone that talented wants the puck, that's a good thing for us.”

Granato made it clear Maatta will receive every opportunity to showcase his talent.

“This league is so hard,” Granato said. “And he's making it look so easy. He amazes me.”

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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