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Penguins

Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta wants to improve performance

Jonathan Bombulie
| Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, 4:36 p.m.
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta signs autographs for fans during Kraft Hockeyville USA events on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at Rostraver Ice Garden in Belle Vernon.
Ken Reabe Jr. | For The Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta signs autographs for fans during Kraft Hockeyville USA events on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, at Rostraver Ice Garden in Belle Vernon.

On the surface, Olli Maatta is coming off two of the greatest seasons a hockey player could ever imagine.

He will have a giant, shiny ring, one for each hand, to make sure he never forgets them.

Deep down, though, the fifth-year pro feels a little differently about the latest stretch of his career. He feels he could have done a lot more to contribute to the team's success.

“The last two years, I didn't play my best hockey,” Maatta said. “I think I've got a lot better (to give).”

Some basic statistics don't back up Maatta's self-deprecating claim.

In his first two seasons, the Penguins outscored opponents 65-56 when Maatta was on the ice at even strength. That figure has improved to 103-63 in the two years since. His shot-based possession stats are essentially the same for each of the two two-year periods.

His coach doesn't think he's played poorly either.

“I think Olli's hard on himself,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “Olli's been a real good player for us. Like all players, we all go through our ups and downs. Olli's no different in that regard, but what I love about him is his compete level and his ability to bounce back.

“When he doesn't have a game where he thinks he played particularly well, or a couple of games he didn't play particularly well, Olli has a certain resilience about him that helps him to be effective in this league. I think that's an important part of being a pro because it's a hard game out there.”

So what parts of Maatta's game are deserving of the criticism he has placed on himself?

One possible answer is offense. As a defenseman asked to play in difficult situations in his own zone on a regular basis, goals and assists aren't necessarily the most important things Maatta can contribute to the Penguins' cause.

Still, he averaged 0.39 points per game in his first two years as a pro and only 0.21 in the two years since.

Maatta doesn't subscribe to the theory that his value is measured in points, but he does believe points tend to come his way when he's performing well and playing on his toes.

“You get those assists when you make a good breakout play or stuff like that,” Maatta said.

Another possible answer is speed. Anecdotally, more opponents have zoomed past Maatta in the past two seasons, after he had surgeries in 2014 to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid and to repair a shoulder injury, than they did in his first two years as a pro.

Maatta said he doesn't notice a major difference in how he feels physically before and after that fateful stretch, though.

“It's tough to say,” Maatta said. “It's tough to go back like that.”

If Maatta's self-described struggles the past two seasons aren't a result of lingering physical maladies, how does he expect to make improvements to his game?

He has a pretty good idea: work hard and look around his own locker room for inspiration.

“Just being around (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang), those guys, you look at them every day and they just want to get better,” Maatta said. “That's something everybody takes out from them. It doesn't matter how good they are. If they're the best player in the world, every day they try to get better. I think that's what you've got to do to be a good player in this league.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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