The challenges faced by Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta last year in his first pro season would be quite a burden for most other players his age. However, after facing the daunting transitioning phase from major-junior hockey to the NHL, the Finnish blueliner has a high maturity level to thank for overcoming those first-year trials.
As a 19-year-old coming into the league last season, some of those trials Maatta and other rookies faced included adjusting to a new city, being on his own and facing men sometimes 10 to 15 years older than himself. What separated Maatta from his peers when faced with these challenges was his maturity. His ability to compete in 78 regular-season games and 13 playoff games as a rookie was proof of this.
Fellow defenseman Kris Letang applauds Maatta, now 20, for that level of maturity his teammate shown last season.
“I think in his situation, he’s so much more mature than other 20 year olds,” Letang said. “He’s acting like a 30-year-old that’s been in the league for 10 years. The thing is, he’s been in the league for one year and now he needs to keep improving.”
Maatta understands what Letang is saying about having to realize last season is in the rear-view mirror. That’s why this past offseason was crucial to his success going forward even though he had to undergo shoulder surgery in May.
“It was a little bit different summer than usual,” Maatta said. “I was motivated. I wanted to come back from surgery and be an even better player from last year. It was definitely wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but that was my goal and I think that motivated me a lot.”
To Letang, Maatta’s route to Pittsburgh has been very impressive considering he himself didn’t make as immediate an impact for the Penguins in his rookie season the way Maatta did last year. Letang was drafted in 2005 and only played in seven games at 19 years old. Maatta, on the other hand, played a full season his rookie year. Letang, a former Norris trophy finalist for the best NHL defenseman, stresses Maatta’s maturity at such a young age was the difference between how they started their respected careers.
“There was a difference between me and him,” Letang said. “When he came into the league, he was more mature that I was. He’s always the first guy on the ice, first guy in the gym. He’s really focused on what he has to do.”
Maatta’s teammates, like Letang, are helping him find his niche in this organization. Ten-year-veteran Rob Scuderi has kept an eye on him from the beginning and likes where he is heading both in each aspect of the game, whether that’s on the ice or in the locker room.
“I see him more confident in just the way he goes about things,” Scuderi said. “I think he’s a great all-around defenseman and he was always good last year and always played incredibly well for us, but I think this year, he’s over the hump.”
Maatta has found his place in the locker room and has gained an appreciation for the group of guys he plays with every night.
“In the locker room and on the ice they’re professionals,” he said. “We respect each other and anybody can say anything. Everybody listens to you. You can have a voice in this locker room. I like asking a lot of questions and seeing what they like to do and what works best for them and that’s really helping me.”
Maatta’s persistence to get better at his game has already surfaced quite early this season. In the first game of the season against the Anaheim Ducks, he knotted three pretty assists, all in different fashions.
To net his first, Maatta kicked off the rush and sent a seamless stretch pass from behind his own red line to Chris Kunitz, who then relayed the puck to Sidney Crosby for the score in the first period.
The second came minutes later when Maatta received the puck from Evgeni Malkin in the faceoff circle and slid it through the slot to Pascal Dupuis, who shot it backdoor.
Maatta’s final assist of the night came late in the second after Pascal Dupuis began a three-on-two rush and dropped it off to the Finn at the top of the circle. He then threw it to Blake Comeau, who beat the Ducks’ goaltender far side.
To Letang, this kind of hot start isn’t surprising. Simply put, he thinks this kid is pretty unique.
“They say there’s always a sophomore slump,” Letang said. “But in his situation, he’s a special kid.”