Ex-Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta returns with Blackhawks
It wasn’t just hot.
It was humid. It was sweaty.
It was parts-of-your-skin-stick-to-other-parts-of-your skin hot.
On June 20, 2012, Pittsburgh was in the midst of a searing heat wave with temperatures routinely in the low 90s.
The NHL was staging is entry draft that weekend and, as is typically the case, it held media availability with several of the players projected to be first-round selections.
Normally, those functions are staged in a hotel or at the venue the draft is held at.
That day, at the suggestion of the Pittsburgh Penguins, those interviews were staged on top of the Gateway Clipper Fleet’s Empress during a tour of the city’s three rivers. As awkward generic questions usually involving some form of “What NHL player to you compare yourself to?” were asked and answered, those players (and several reporters) struggled with the conditions as the sun reflected off the top deck of the boat as well as the water.
A few, such as eventual top overall selection Nail Yakupov and future Penguins forward Alex Galchenyuk, dressed in shorts and acclimated themselves well.
Then there was Olli Maatta.
He wore pants.
As he politely answered questions, the 18-year-old from nordic Jyvaskyla, Finland, perspired to such a degree, he might as well have taken a plunge into the Monongahela River.
“It was hot,” Maatta said with a wry smile when reminded Saturday of his first visit to Pittsburgh.
Roughly 30 hours after that scorcher of a boat ride, Maatta was chosen by the Penguins with the 22nd overall selection.
“That was the first time I actually was in Pittsburgh,” said Maatta, “It’s pretty cool when I think back on it.”
Maatta’s latest trip to Pittsburgh was very different. First, it came on a Saturday in mid-November when temperatures were hovering in the low 40s.
Then there’s the matter of his attire.
He was bearing black shorts this time.
And a white Chicago Blackhawks jersey.
Maatta faced the Penguins as an opponent for the first time at PPG Paints Arena.
“It is weird,” said Maatta, now 25. “Even coming to the city. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s definitely a weird feeling.”
In the name of clearing space on their payroll, the Penguins dealt Maatta and his $4,083,333 cap hit (according to Cap Friendly) to the Blackhawks this past June in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a fifth-round pick in July’s draft.
That transaction ended a six-year marriage that had some intoxicating highs such as debuting in the NHL as an 18-year old and Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and ’17. But there were also several melancholic lows like repeated right shoulder surgeries as well as a battle with thyroid cancer.
“I grew up as a person a lot,” Maatta said of his tenure with the Penguins. “Coming in as a young guy, I think I learned about life a little bit. At the same time, I learned about playing NHL hockey. That was a big thing. But obviously, what stands out is the two (Stanley Cup titles). It’s just something special being part of two teams like that. You’re never going to forget that.”
The end of Maatta’s time with the Penguins was forgettable as he served as a healthy scratch for the team’s final three games in a humiliating four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders during the first round of last season’s playoffs.
After the indignity of being benched, Maatta realized the possibility of being moved existed.
“You had it a little in your mind, but you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Especially when it’s going to happen, if it’s going to happen. I was a little bit surprised.”
Maatta is coming off his best game as a member of the Blackhawks: He recorded a season-high two assists in a 5-2 home win against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday. For the season, he has appeared in 15 games and has four points.
His basic offensive number rarely have stood out during his career. That’s why the Blackhawks acquired him in hopes of steadying their defense. Only All-Star defenseman Duncan Keith (85) has seen more defensive-zone starts than Maatta (77) among the Blackhawks this season, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“He’s got experience,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “He’s also young … 400 games already. It’s a big boost to our team. Just plays a steady game. He can make plays but we’re looking, first and foremost, for his defensive play and killing penalties for us. Those are two areas we think he’s improved.”
Said Keith: “He’s a young guy, but he’s been around for a long time, in a good way. He brings that young veteran leadership to the room. Very poised. He’s a great guy. You can see why the Penguins were successful having a guy like that in their lineup.”
Maatta wasn’t quite sure what to expect when the Penguins played their customary “welcome back” video for former players or executives upon their first game back as a visitor.
But he appears to have gotten past any sort of mixed feelings over his departure and embraced his new life with the Blackhawks.
“Obviously, it’s hard,” Maatta said. “I have nothing but good memories. In six years, it’s been an awesome time.
“As more time went by (after the trade), I think I realized how lucky I got with the organization I came to. From what I heard about Chicago, I heard nothing bad. Everything is top notch. The city is awesome. The organization has been awesome. I think I got pretty lucky being where I am.”
• Goaltender Matt Murray was expected to start for the Penguins. In 13 games this season, he has an 8-3-1 record along with a 2.40 goals against average, a .914 save percentage and one shutout.
• The Penguins did not hold a morning skate.
• Forward Sam Lafferty and Chad Ruhwedel skated on their own this morning.
• The Blackhawks did hold a full morning skate. They were expected to start goaltender Corey Crawford in net. In seven games this season, he has a 2-4-1 record with a 3.50 goals against average and a .901 save percentage.
• In 10 career games against the Penguins, Crawford has spectacular numbers. He has a 9-1-0 record in those games along with a 1.85 goals against average and .949 save percentage.
• The Blackhawks have won 10 consecutive games against the Penguins. The last time the Penguins defeated the Blackhawks was a 4-1 home victory on March 30, 2014.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .