We’ve been talking a lot about all of the factors surrounding the decision of whether or not to keep Olli Maatta
with the Penguins.
But right now, we can forget all of the rules and ramifications that come with a teenager playing in the NHL. Because at the end of the day, the reasoning behind Maatta officially remaining in Pittsburgh is quite simple: as head coach Dan Bylsma said, “he’s given us the best chance to win hockey games.”
The rookie defenseman has experienced a gauntlet of emotions today – starting with butterflies in his stomach going into his meeting with Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero this morning and not knowing what he was going to hear. Would he stay or go back to his junior team?
“Of course I was nervous about it,” Maatta said. “I was more nervous than I was before (Monday’s) game.”
That anxiety turned to happiness and excitement as Shero and Bylsma told Maatta Thursday he would be remaining with the Penguins after playing his ninth NHL game on Monday against Colorado (staying means his three-year entry-level contract has kicked in and he will lose the first season of his deal regardless of how long he is here).
It’s been an incredible few weeks for the 19-year-old Maatta, who had been quietly thrilled just to make his NHL debut earlier this month – telling me “you don’t even realize how big this is (for me). This is my dream.”
Maatta has earned the right to continue living his dream, one he has and continues to work exceptionally hard for. As defenseman Brooks Orpik told us, "for a kid his age, I've never seen a kid work as hard as this kid off the ice."
Maatta may be just 19 years old, but he’s already sacrificed a lot to get here – starting with leaving his family and friends behind in his native Finland at the age of 16 to play for London of the Ontario Hockey League. Maatta had to learn a new language, culture and style of play at an age where the majority of us are just worried about passing our driver’s test, but he says it was all worth it as developing with the Knights helped him get to where he is now.
“It feels awesome,” said Maatta, who called his parents, a few of his buddies and his billet family back in London after learning the news. “I’m really excited. It’s always been my dream to play in the NHL and now it’s happening. So that’s great.”
What makes it feel even more fantastic for Maatta is that he has earned it with his play. Maatta has been a confident, poised and steady presence on the third defensive pairing in all nine of his games and has gotten increased time on the second power-play unit.
His three points (1G-2A) are tied for second most among team blueliners, he has been a plus or even player in seven of his games and has played 15 or more minutes in six of nine games while averaging 20.3 shifts. To put what Maatta has done into perspective, when Kris Letang played seven games with Pittsburgh as a 19-year-old in October 2006, he played more than 15 minutes just twice and averaged 14.9 shifts per game while being a minus player in four of seven games (stats courtesy of manager of communications Jason Seidling).
“I feel like I’ve worked hard for this,” Maatta said. “They feel like I’ve still got to keep working hard to get better. But you know what, I feel really good about earning a spot here.”
Bylsma and Maatta’s teammates couldn’t be more thrilled for the professional, respectful kid who has impressed them with his maturity both on and off the ice.
“I remember what it was like when I was 20 and the day the GM told me I was going to stay for the time being,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s an exciting and really cool moment. That’s a cool moment for him; I’m sure he’s just loving life right now. And he should be. He’s earned that opportunity.”
Maatta is here for the short-term, but the long-term has yet to be determined. If he stays in Pittsburgh for 40 games, then he will be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent one year sooner. And the Penguins can return him to London at any time – if they do, he must play with the Knights until the conclusion of their season.
But Maatta isn’t thinking about any of that right now, and he hasn’t discussed it with management or the coaches. All he’s focused on is playing his 10th game on Friday against the New York Islanders.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet. I just want to focus on the next game,” he said. “I don’t really want to worry about that. When you focus on the other things, I don’t think I play that well. I just want to focus and put my everything on the next game.”
And that’s exactly what the staff wants from him. After all, like Maatta said – “(that approach has) gone good so far, so why change anything?”