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Maatta getting bigger role on Penguins blue line

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- If Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has his way, rookie defenseman Olli Maatta will get serious consideration for the Calder Trophy.

As injuries have decimated the Penguins' defense this season, the 19-year-old's role on the blue line has continued to grow. With top-four defensemen Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (broken hand) gone for the rest of the regular season, Maatta has played more than 20 minutes in eight of Pittsburgh's past nine games, with a high of 24:38 against the San Jose Sharks on March 6.

Maatta has scored four times during that stretch, including twice against San Jose, and entered the weekend with nine goals, 28 points and a plus-12 rating in 64 games while averaging 18:08 of ice time. Those numbers may not compare with some other Calder hopefuls, but Bylsma believes the 19-year-old's value goes well beyond statistics.

Olli Maatta
Defense - PIT
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 28
SOG: 104 | +/-: 12
"You don't expect a player that age, in his first year, to step into a top-minutes, top-pair role, a matchup pair," Bylsma said of Maatta, the 22nd player taken in the 2012 NHL Draft. "For him and his progression, his last 20 [games] have looked even stronger than what we saw earlier in the season. To be able to have him play there with injuries to two top-four guys in Martin and Letang, it's pretty amazing.

"It screams to me consideration for rookie of the year. There are certainly guys who have better numbers, [Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan] MacKinnon having better numbers, but what he's been able to do, how he's been able to do it, who he's been able to play against and be a positive player and get close to 10 goals now, it's been pretty amazing."

Maatta has been paired with Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh's most tenured player, for the past five games entering Saturday's road matchup against the Philadelphia Flyers during which they've been matched up against opposing teams' top forward lines. The Penguins used the Maatta-Orpik combo against Alex Ovechkin's line in both games of a home-and-home series against the Washington Capitals this past week; Pittsburgh won both and Ovechkin, the NHL leader in goals and shots, was held without a goal on six shots in the two games.

Maatta credits Orpik and Matt Niskanen, his partner for the majority of the season, for his seamless transition to the NHL.

"I'm new here and they know how it goes," Maatta said. "They've been here a long time and they're really calm out there. If I get a little nervous, they calm me down out there and they play a really simple game that fits me well."

Orpik normally forms half of Pittsburgh's shutdown defensive pairing, playing alongside Martin. The veteran defenseman sees certain similarities between the two.

"They're both left-handed shots and make a really good first pass when coming out of the zone. [Maatta] is probably a little more physical than Paul is," Orpik said. "In terms of hockey IQ or how smart they are reading the play and stuff like that, I think they are similar players. Olli's not a real loud guy or talkative guy. It took a little bit to get used to some tendencies and get a read off of him. Paul's similar, he's not a loud guy."

Maatta and Orpik are partners now, but they were opponents not long ago at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. They met in the bronze-medal game that saw Maatta and Finland team beat Orpik's U.S. team 5-0. Orpik was disheartened by the loss but was glad to see Maatta enjoy the moment.

Forward Jussi Jokinen, who played with Maatta with Finland and Pittsburgh, thinks the young defenseman opened some eyes with his play in Sochi.

"I don't need to tell anyone how good he is. Everyone in Finland understands now how good a player he is," Jokinen said after returning from Sochi. "Before the tournament and during the season, a lot of people were asking me what kind of player he is and how good he is. But I think you saw there in that tournament how good of a player he is.

"I think we already know here in Pittsburgh how great a player he is."

Five months before the Olympics, Maatta's spot on the Penguins' opening-night roster was far from certain. But an elbow injury to Letang provided an opening, and he blocked three shots in 14:44 of ice time in Pittsburgh's season-opening 3-0 win against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 3.

Maatta's point total ranks second among first-year defensemen behind Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins and is 11th among all rookies. But while Krug was expected to make an impact on Boston's blue line after his superb play during the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring, Maatta's performance has been something of a surprise.

Most impressive is that he's been able to take on more responsibility as the season has gone on.

"It's been quite a ride for him. Obviously, he had no expectations coming into camp," Niskanen said. "He just took an opportunity because of a training camp injury, like most of us. That's how you get your start in the League, that's how you get your chance. He just played so well that they didn't have a choice but to keep him."

His 69 games with Pittsburgh and Finland in 2013-14 are already 12 more than he played with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League in 2012-13; he had eight goals and finished with 38 points in 57 games in his final junior season. But Maatta isn't worried about wearing down; he's too busy enjoying his time at hockey's highest level.

"It's felt pretty short. I remember training camp like it was yesterday," Maatta said. "It hasn't been a long season for me. I've been enjoying every day. Every day I'm living the professional hockey player life, playing in the NHL. It's always been my dream."

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