A spot on the Pittsburgh Penguins' regular-season roster remains uncertain for defenseman Olli Maatta, but the 19-year-old's performance throughout training camp might have him on the cusp of becoming a prominent piece of their defense.
The second of Pittsburgh's 2012 first-round picks (No. 22), Maatta went into the Penguins' preseason game Wednesday at the Detroit Red Wings (7:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US) still with a chance to make the Penguins' opening-day roster. The Jyvaskyla, Finland native has spent time skating alongside Kris Letang, a Norris Trophy candidate last season, in three preseason games entering Wednesday and has fit in well.
"It's awesome to play with the big guys and learn from them," Maatta said. "That's a big thing for me. I'm trying to learn a lot of things here."
A player's age could become apparent while playing alongside, and against, some of the League's marquee names, but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he's been impressed with Maatta's ability to not just keep up, but match the veterans he's played against.
"He's a solid defender," Bylsma said. "He's dependable, he skates well. Good, solid execution with the puck and he's been that in the opportunities that he's had. He's very good at creating separation and making a play with the puck afterwards.
"He's had a good camp at this point in time."
Playing with Letang, Maatta frequently has faced the opposition's top forwards, including the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg on Sept. 16. If Maatta was nervous while facing the two seasoned stars, it didn't show during his 18:49 of ice time, third among Pittsburgh's defensemen that game.
"It's awesome [playing against star players]," Maatta said. "I think you learn what you have to do better and you learn what it's going to be like. That's a big thing for me and it's motivation playing against Zetterberg and Datsyuk. I saw how good of players they are and [asked myself] what should I do to stop them.
"It had me thinking that I have to get a lot better."
Maatta is a solid two-way defenseman and his puck movement has been crisp in the preseason. But despite Bylsma's praise of his skating, he believes Maatta needs to improve his movement and, at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, hopes he becomes more physical to develop into the all-round player the Penguins envision.
"I have to get stronger of course," he said. "I also have to work on my skating a lot. I've been working on it a lot and I've been improving it, but I still have to make some big steps with it."
In time, Maatta could be a valuable addition to Pittsburgh's special teams, but has made a few mental errors on the penalty kill.
He logged 3:26 shorthanded ice time, third among Pittsburgh's defensemen, against the Chicago Blackhawks on Sept. 23. While the Penguins held Chicago to one power-play goal on six chances, Maatta was forced into a few turnovers that could have been avoided, including one in front of Pittsburgh's net.
But the Penguins are confident Maatta will begin to make the correct reads with further experience and believe he has developed more quickly than they anticipated.
"For his age, playing at this level right now, he's a good defenseman," Letang said. "He doesn't get caught out of position [and] he can actually join the attack too. He's impressed me the first few days."
The veteran defensemen are trying to further expedite Maatta's development by teaching him all they can while in camp, in case he doesn't make the regular-season roster.
"You want to make him comfortable coming into training camp," Letang said. "I remember when I was a younger guy, guys took me under their wings and it helps. It's easier to adapt and I think it's something we have to do with guys like him, who are 19 years old."
Along with his play the past two weeks, which includes leading the team with a plus-2 rating, Maatta's track record with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League has the Penguins confident he will be prepared to make an impact soon.
Maatta has 70 points (13 goals, 57 assists) in two seasons with the Knights while helping the team win consecutive OHL championships. He led London’s defensemen with eight goals, 30 assists and 38 points last season while tying for first on the team and sixth in the league with 23 postseason points.
He made his professional debut last season, skating in three games with the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, during the Eastern Conference Final against the Syracuse Crunch.
"I have seen Olli play the last couple years, read on Olli being a guy who is ready to take the next step in his career," Bylsma said. "He played a really impressive game last year in the American league when he went down there.
"So I'm expecting him to be a guy who's really close to being an NHL type of player."
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