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Decision Time Coming on Maatta

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins and Olli Maatta have come to a crossroads.

Maatta has played in the first nine games of the 2013-14 season and the Penguins have to decide whether to let him stick around for a 10th game or return him to his junior team in London, Ontario of the Ontario Hockey League.

So why do they have to make a decision now? Technically they don’t. The Penguins have the option to keep Maatta and return him to London at any point this season.

However, two factors make that decision a little more difficult. First, if Maatta is in Pittsburgh for 10 games this season then his three-year entry-level contract will kick in. Second, if Maatta is in Pittsburgh for 40 games, then he will be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent one year sooner.

So if the Penguins were to return Maatta to juniors after the 10-game mark then one year of his contract will get burned. And if they return him after 40 games, then he will become a free agent sooner. The Penguins are looking at the short-term and long-term implications of their decision.

(Note: The games played markers are not the number of games Maatta plays, but the number of games the Penguins play while Maatta is on the roster. So the Penguins can’t scratch him to avoid hitting the threshold).

Olli Maatta's future with the Penguins will be decided by Friday

The Penguins’ 10th game is Friday when they host the New York Islanders. So the team has a few days to make their decision. Send him back to juniors to develop or keep him and risk losing a year under contract?

“We’ll have three days to make a full evaluation of that situation and decide what that will be,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s made it a tough decision.”

Here’s a breakdown of the factors in the team’s decision…

Maatta is not eligible to play in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. So he must either play this season in Pittsburgh or London. But, if the Penguins return Maatta to London, he must play with the Knights until the conclusion of their season – which wouldn’t be until late May since the Knights are hosting this year’s Memorial Cup. So it is very possible that if the Penguins send Maatta to London he will not play with Pittsburgh again this season.

But if the Penguins keep Maatta beyond 10 games and end up returning him to juniors after then they will lose one year of his contract. And if he’s in Pittsburgh past 40 games and then sent to London, he will reach unrestricted free agency a year early.

Maatta has played in nine games this season because he’s earned those nine games. Bylsma said it wasn’t a “trial run.” Maatta has played well enough to be in the lineup. And the coaching staff has shown a lot of faith in Maatta by playing him as the only defenseman on the blue line with the second power-play unit.

But nine games is a small sample size. If the Penguins keep him beyond these 10 games and his play starts to suffer or struggle then the team may be forced to send him back to London – and with one less year of him under contract. It’s impossible to predict how a 19-year-old prospect will play over the course of an NHL season, but Maatta is hoping he’s shown the team enough during the early parts of the season to convince them he can handle it.

Maybe the biggest factor to consider in this situation is how much Maatta would play in the NHL.

Penguins defenseman Kris Letang is getting closer to being healthy. His return would give the Penguins eight defensemen, a high number to carry. But Letang’s return creates a logjam at the position. Letang would join Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Matt Niskanen on the blue line. Meaning there is one open spot for either Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo or Deryk Engelland to fill.

At just 19 years old, Maatta needs to be playing hockey. If the Penguins’ depth on defense forces Maatta to watch the bulk of the team’s games this season from the media box, then it could hurt his development. If he will not be in the lineup regularly for the Penguins, then his development would be best served logging a lot of minutes in London.

Maatta has played well enough to convince me. He’s been one of the team’s most consistent defensemen. He’s played some spectacular games. He’s also shown the confidence to play at the NHL level – just look at the way he crashed the net to score his first career NHL goal.

Maatta has also struggled at times – which is to be expected from a young blueliner. But he’s shown a mental toughness to bounce back from those mistakes and improve. I believe he will only get better with every game he plays. But the key is playing. If Maatta isn’t going to play regularly then I think the team should return him to London.

So for me it comes down to this, if the Penguins feel confident that Maatta will get to play between 50-60 games this season, keep him. If not, send him to London.

Predicting the future is impossible and I don’t envy the position Penguins management is in having to make this decision. I can understand both sides of the argument and wouldn’t be surprised either way. But I would like to see him stay.

So fans, what do you think? Would you like to see Maatta in Pittsburgh or would it be better for his development to play in London? What factors are you considering?

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