For the last couple of weeks in almost every post, we’ve been ranting and raving about how downright awesome Olli Maatta is. At the tender age of 19, the Finnish product has been a revelation on a blue line that has struggled over the last few years and under a coaching staff that tends to not give younger guys much of a chance. But somehow, Olli Maatta has broken the mold. Though the season is only 3 games old for the Penguins, the Pens 22nd overall pick in 2012 has gotten better with each game and more confident. However, the question remains: What happens to Maatta when Kris Letang comes back from injury?
Some thoughts after the jump.
Currently, the Penguins have 7 healthy defensemen on the NHL roster in Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Matt Niskanen, Olli Maatta, Robert Brotuzzo, and
Derek Engelland Ralph Tungqvist. When Letang comes back, that number increases by 1 to 8. Isn’t math fun?
Maatta is in the first year of his entry level contract, is still junior eligible, and can play 9 games without burning a year of his contract. Regardless of Letang’s status, the Penguins are going to have a big decision to make with Maatta within the next 6 games: Keep him with the big club or preserve a year of his contract and send him back to the London Knights to play another year of juniors. The first option, obviously, will use up a year of his contract.
So what is the best option for both Maatta and the Pens? By many accounts, the Penguins higher-ups felt Maatta was NHL ready last year. But, much like this year, there was a logjam on the blueline. No sense forcing the issue then, right? At the end of the year, Maatta was seeing some time playing in the AHL playoffs, getting some extra experience. Fast forward to this year. During camp, he was extremely noticeable. During the preseason games he played, it was the same story. Between him and Brotuzzo, they were both good enough to force Despres to WBS. The same Despres that HCDB said would be a top 4 defenseman this year. A big part of Despres’ demotion was his own fault, but you can’t rule out how good Maatta and Bort were in camp and still are. If this were any other team in the league, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, but the Pens are so deep on D and are about to have a Norris Trophy finalist return to the lineup. The luxury has its complications.
In our minds (and many others), sending Maatta back to the OHL is a waste in some ways. Sure, it saves a year of his contract, but he’s just not going to learn anything new playing against lower competition. That said, some junior teams probably could thrash the Sabres, but Buffalo is terrible at everything they do, aside from producing Patrick Kanes.
So, being that Maatta can’t play in the AHL until he’s completed four seasons of junior, which is the best option? If you keep him with the big club, he falls to 7th on the defensive depth chart. As we’ve seen in past years, the Pens keeping a young defenseman around as the 7th guy doesn’t usually help that player. If anything, it hurts their development.
Then again, Maatta isn’t like most players. One could argue that he’s developed so well that it made Joe Morrow expendable. But you won’t develop in the NHL if you’re not playing NHL games. That’s science.
To us, the best option would be sending him to the AHL, but unfortunately that’s not a possibility. He would obviously be a top 4 or top 2 guy down there, getting 25-30 minutes a night. Sending him down may not be a popular opinion because he’s done so well, but it’s the rational one. We know, it’s tough to be rational when there are so many umlauts involved.
Of course, Maatta has shown that he can keep up in the NHL in terms of skating, positioning, shooting (dear lord, everything the kid shoots hits the damn net), and flat out being good at ice hockey. What hurts players is when they are brought into the NHL too soon. Countless guys had great showings to land them a roster spot on their first try, but what happened to them after that? Looking at you, Tyler Myers. It’s why Letang spent an extra year in juniors and a decent amount of time in the AHL. Turned out great for him, right?
So send Maatta down to juniors when Letang is 100%. And we mean 100%. With as good as Maatta has been, there is no sense rushing Letang back this early in the season. Let Maatta get a ton of time and own junior in London. From these first few games, you know what to expect from him if there’s another injury and he gets a call-up. You know he’ll fit right in and make it tough for you to send him down again. He’s just that good.
What does that mean for everyone else?
With a healthy Letang and an assumed Maatta demotion, that leaves the Penguins with Martin, Orpik, Scuderi, Letang, Niskanen, Brotuzzo, and Engelland. Even by sending Maatta down, you still assume he’s #7 on your depth chart because Engo is terrible and awful and bad. So do the Pens need to really carry 7 defensemen if that’s the case? We think no. Bias aside, we think dumping Engo would be a smart move. He’s affordable for almost every team in the league at $566,667. To us, he probably has the value of Eric Tangradi, partially because he’s trash and partially because he’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. On another team, he may actually not be terrible. He brings a physical edge that some teams are looking for and has the ability to punch people particularly well. Can’t rule out the possibility of shipping him somewhere for a late round draft pick, much like Shero did with Tangradi, Lovejoy, and Mark Letestu. That leaves your roster with 6 true NHL defensemen and a 7th on the other side of Lake Erie. Also, let’s not forget about an 8th in Simon Despres.
The D pairings may look a little something like this with Maatta in junior:
Orpik – Martin
Letang – Scuderi
Niskanen – Brotuzzo
On top of that, Maatta’s emergence, and immediate chemistry and success with Brotuzzo, may make someone like Matt Niskanen or even Simon Despres expendable as well. We aren’t saying this is going to happen or actually has to happen, but there are a couple rumors floating around that Shero has been in talks with Anaheim (via The PensBlog) about shipping a d-man out there. Logically, this would be Matt Niskanen. The Pens have 3-6 more months to worry about being cap compliant when Vokoun comes back, but it’ll have to happen eventually. But aside from that, trading away someone like Matt Niskanen (disclaimer: we don’t want to see him go because he’s very, very solid) opens up the opportunity for Maatta to stay in the NHL for the long haul. Think about this for a minute:
Orpik – Martin
Letang – Scuderi
Maatta – Brotuzzo
That’s something we can live with on a nightly basis. And with Letang possibly coming back this weekend, the decision may be coming sooner rather than later. Buckle up. Go Pens.
NOTE: Edited after we did some supplemental research. Thanks to reader John for pointing out the ins and outs of players on entry-level deals without four seasons of junior experience or under 20 years of age.