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We're Feeling 22

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins have the 22nd overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft for just the second time in franchise history, but fans don’t have to look very far back to see the team’s most recent – and successful – player selected at that position.

Olli Maatta.

Yeah, we’d say that turned out okay.

Photo Gallery: Penguins draft Maatta

After the Penguins selected Derrick Pouliot eighth overall in Pittsburgh back in 2012 with the pick they procured from Carolina just minutes earlier, the Penguins still had its original first-round pick to use as well.

Fortunately for them, Maatta was somehow still available as the Penguins went on the clock and prepared to make their pick. So they quickly snatched up the London Knights’ defenseman, who was thrilled to be drafted by the host Penguins in their home arena, saying, “The feeling was unbelievable. Actually, I had kind of hoped to get drafted by Pittsburgh when they cheered for Pouliot when he got picked No. 8.”

And the Penguins were thrilled to get him, because Maatta is the kind of talent that could have – and probably should have – gone much earlier.

“The Penguins definitely got a steal where they got him,” Knights teammate and fellow Penguins prospect Scott Harrington said at the time. “I definitely thought he’d go in the top 10 for sure. He’s just an all-around two-way defenseman. He does everything really well. He plays with a lot of poise and confidence.”

The Penguins were excited about Maatta, and they were right to be, as the young defenseman made Pittsburgh’s roster out of training camp the next year – just a few weeks after turning 19 – and established himself as a regular NHL blueliner during the 2013-14 season.

“It feels great to be able to play in the NHL, and just (have) as good of a season as I did,” Maatta said at the team’s locker cleanout day last month. “I feel like I got a lot better as the season went on. As a player, I think I improved a lot in my game.”

The teenager put together a rookie season worthy of Calder Trophy mention, skating in 78 games for the Penguins and finishing second among team defensemen in assists (20), points (29), blocked shots (112) and plus-minus (+8). His 29 points ranked fourth for a rookie defenseman in team history, while his nine goals placed second (Zarley Zalapski, 12, 1988-89).

But the stats don’t tell the whole story. What’s so special about Maatta is his work ethic, professionalism and maturity that belies his 19 years of age.

As veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said, “He comes in and he’s obviously a confident kid with the way he plays, but the confidence comes from his work ethic and how he prepares. For a kid his age, I've never seen a kid work as hard as this kid off the ice. And it comes with zero ego, which is refreshing.”

Those qualities allowed Maatta to step up and handle an increased workload and responsibilities when the team needed him to. And despite his youth and inexperience at the NHL level, the Penguins had to rely on Maatta heavily at times throughout the season as the franchise lost a staggering 529 man-games due to injury.

That included a stretch in the first half that saw all of Pittsburgh’s top-four D-men out due to injury; and a stretch in the second half where both Kris Letang and Paul Martin were sidelined long-term.

But while Maatta may have been forced into difficult situations where he had to play top-pairing minutes alongside D-partner Matt Niskanen, he handled them with aplomb.

There were, however, a few times where fatigue caught up to him, which is to be expected with a teenaged rookie. Especially since Maatta never got a break while playing a compressed schedule, as he was named to Finland’s 2014 Olympic Team – and won a bronze medal for his country at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia this past February.

That resulted in the Penguins making him a healthy scratch for a couple of games throughout the season to let him recharge both physically and mentally.

“It’s a long season. It is a grind,” Maatta said. “It’s something new for me, for sure. I think I played a lot of games but not at this level. I’m sure it affected me at some point. During Christmas when I got the first game off, I was tired just mentally and physically after so many games. But I think guys here have done a great job of just supporting me and telling me sometimes take it easy and get a day off.”

Maatta underwent successful shoulder labral repair surgery on May 22. His projected recovery time is expected to be 4-6 months, and the Penguins will certainly be eager to get him back this fall – where he’ll hopefully build off his tremendous rookie season.


The NHL’s feeling 22 – the 22nd overall draft pick, that is. Especially recently.

Olli Maatta, drafted at that slot in 2012, is just the latest 22nd overall pick to establish himself as an NHL regular. That particular slot has produced a number of star NHLers in a short period of time over the past few years – most notably Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux, Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, and Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle. Here’s a quick look at those three guys…

The Flyers drafted Claude Giroux eight years ago after his outstanding rookie season with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where the gifted playmaker finished with 64 assists and 103 points in 69 games. Here’s what The Hockey News had to say about Giroux that year…

“A lack of size will always hurt Giroux's NHL status, but his offensive prowess is undeniable. He led all QMJHL rookies with 103 points in 69 games in 2005-06... led Gatineau and finished in a tie for 11th place in the overall scoring race... an Ontario native, Giroux was passed over in the OHL Priority Selection and wound up with Gatineau as a walk-on... owns an impressive offensive arsenal and plenty of hockey sense... displays the guts required for smaller players to flourish in the pro game... must play a simpler game when the competition becomes greater.”

Giroux’s size turned out to be an absolute non-issue, as the 26-year-old has developed into the Flyers’ captain and franchise center – and just earned his first-ever Hart Trophy nomination for league MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award, for most outstanding player as voted by fellow members of the NHLPA.

After selecting Ryan McDonagh 12th overall seven years ago, the Montreal Canadiens used the pick they had acquired in a trade with San Jose to draft Max Pacioretty 22nd overall. Pacioretty had just finished his first and only season with the Sioux City Musketeers, where the forward totaled 63 points (21G-42A) in 60 games. NHL Central Scouting’s report on Pacioretty from that year turned out to be mostly accurate, especially when describing his strengths…

“A competitive power forward with a good physical presence. Has a very good wrist shot with a quick release. Is a good skater with excellent first step quickness. Strong in the face-off circle and does what it takes to help his team win. Needs to improve his consistency around the net. Effective on the penalty kill, but needs to improve his defensive anticipation.”

TSN said Pacioretty “does a lot of things well enough to get first-round consideration, although a number of teams view him as more second-round material.” And it looks like the Canadiens were right to take him when they did, as Pacioretty, 25, has since developed into Montreal’s biggest offensive threat. He’s a big, strong and speedy scoring winger who established a new personal best this past season with 39 goals after scoring a career-high 33 goals two years ago. The Connecticut native was also named to his first-ever U.S. Olympic Team this past February.

There were a lot of promising prospects to choose from in the 2008 NHL Draft, and Edmonton opted to continue building their talented young forward core when they chose Jordan Eberle 22nd overall. He had put up 70 goals and 130 points in 136 games over the previous two seasons with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League, and scouting reports lauded his offensive instincts – especially his ability to put the puck in the back of the net.

From TSN:
A somewhat under-sized centre, Eberle is considered one of the smartest offensive players in the draft. He is a better goal-scorer than a playmaker and is an elusive talent when he has the puck. There are some questions about his speed, but he does have quickness, especially in tight situations and one-on-ones.

That ability translated to the NHL right away, as Eberle scored 34 goals in his sophomore season two years ago, followed that up with 16 in the lockout-shortened season and totaled 28 goals this past season. And at just 24 years old, Eberle is just now entering his prime.
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