Just a couple of weeks after being selected by the host Penguins in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft, Olli Maatta returned to the city of Pittsburgh for his first-ever development camp with the organization.
The purpose of the camp is for prospects to start developing the habits and mindset of a professional hockey player, and to get educated in what it means to be a member of the Penguins organization.
Under the guidance of the staff – primarily Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works with the team’s defensemen – Maatta learned exactly what it meant to be a Pittsburgh Penguin during a week of on-ice practices, off-ice workouts, a scrimmage, educational seminars in NHL security and nutrition and team-bonding experiences that included bowling, paintball and group dinners.
The on-ice sessions were especially helpful, as the coaches educated him and the rest of the guys how they prepare for practice, the system they use, and how they execute it.
Less than two years later, Maatta says the foundation the team helped him establish at development camp is what has allowed him to thrive in the NHL as a teenager.
Maatta made the Penguins’ roster out of training camp this past September and has been with Pittsburgh ever since. He’s developed into a steady, reliable, all-around NHL defenseman at the tender age of 19, expertly handling an increased role and responsibility as Pittsburgh’s blue line was ravaged with injuries throughout the year and impressing the hockey world with his calmness, poise and maturity.
In February, Maatta participated in his first-ever Olympics for his native Finland, winning a bronze medal and finishing the tournament as the team’s most consistent blueliner.
He’s in the discussion for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top first-year player and has already been named the Penguins’ Rookie of the Year at their team awards ceremony. And his experience at development camp, Maatta said, is why.
“That’s probably the biggest reason I’m here,” he said. “Every day since then we’ve been working on the habits and details with Todd. Just being at the development camps, the rookie camps, visiting me in London, watching some games, talking to me throughout my season in junior – just reminding me and helping me with the habits and details to be able to make the jump here.”
When Maatta returned to his junior team – the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League – in the fall of 2012, Reirden continued to work with him, building on the foundation he had established that summer.
Reirden spent as much time with Maatta as possible during the NHL lockout that lasted through January 2013, driving to as many of the young defenseman’s games as he could and visiting him in London to give him pointers and work with him.
“Definitely working on the blue line,” Maatta said of what he and Reirden worked on. “That was one of the big things. Just playing 1-on-1, playing good defense. That kind of stuff. Little details, like having a good stick and just when you go back for the pucks, you’ve got to shoulder check. That kind of stuff. You don’t realize how small things can make you so much better when you learn them.”
Maatta said those small things, that attention to detail, are what separates the Penguins from other teams in the National Hockey League.
“I think we focus on the details and habits every day,” he said. “Just those little things, which make a big difference during the game. We really focus on those things a lot.”
Reirden has been helping Maatta with habits and details off the ice as well. The teenager is essentially on his own for the first time here in Pittsburgh, with his family across the Atlantic Ocean in Finland and his billets back in London. So having a mentor like Reirden to be there for him with anything he might need means the world to the young Finn.
“I remember my first day coming in here, he really kind of took me under his wing,” Maatta said. “He was a guy I could actually talk to if I had some problems off the ice. For example, getting an apartment. Just the normal stuff. He would tell me where I would get the help, so I’ve really got to thank him a lot for the stuff he’s done for me. He’s helped a lot.”
A lot has happened since Maatta played his first NHL game in the Penguins’ regular-season opener on Oct. 3 against New Jersey. He hasn’t had a lot of time to reflect on what he’s been able to accomplish these past few months, but may take the time once the season – his dream-come-true of a season – has come to an end.
“I actually haven’t had time to think about it,” Maatta admitted with a smile. “A lot of games. I think that’s a good thing, too. Maybe after the season, we might have some time and I can go, wow, that was one heck of a season.
“I definitely feel more confident out there and way more comfortable,” he continued. “I feel like I belong here. That’s the big thing. You’ve got to feel that if you want to play in the NHL.”