Defenseman Maatta relishes his return to Penguins lineup
Olli Maatta had finished untying his skates when a reporter approached. After agreeing to answer a few questions, Maatta remembered the Penguins’ preference that players stand when they’re interviewed.
So he stood. And smiled.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more polite or accommodating person in the Penguins dressing room. It also would be tough to find one more critical to the team’s success.
Maatta returned from a 10-month absence Tuesday against Carolina, an absence that was preceded by cancer and mumps, and eventually was triggered by a second major shoulder surgery.
He scored a goal and added an assist. But for Maatta, the true test will be longevity.
“It’s been forever,” Maatta said. “I was excited. I was just happy to play, enjoying every shift. Obviously it wasn’t perfect, but I think that’s a good start.”
Maatta admitted he was nervous after the Penguins morning skate.
“I can’t expect myself to be 100 percent first game back,” Maatta said, “but I have to keep building.”
The Penguins hope so.
Maatta was limited to 20 games last season, his last coming Dec. 6 against Ottawa when he reinjured the shoulder he had surgically repaired about seven months earlier.
Should he play that few again, not only would serious questions arise about Maatta’s ability to stay healthy, but the Penguins’ back end also would suffer.
Paul Martin’s steadiness aided Kris Letang, the same sort of trait the Penguins are hoping to bring out of Maatta. Think about it: If Maatta isn’t able to play alongside Letang, who will?
“He plays both ends of the ice really well,” Letang said. “He’s a smart player. Really mature for his age. … It’s fun to play with a guy like that.”
Maatta feels the same, although his focus simply is on staying healthy. The rest, Maatta figures, will take care of itself.
“I want to prove to management and my teammates that I can play big minutes every night,” Maatta said. “That’s what I’m here to do.”
Maatta is trying to improve his game through his workouts, specifically his “warm-ups, cool downs and keeping your body in shape.”
Basically, he is aiming to work hard when necessary but back off at times to give his body a break.
“Sometimes you have to push yourself to do more, but sometimes, it’s the rest you need,” Maatta said. “You have to find a balance.”
Coach Mike Johnston has learned plenty about Maatta over the past year or so, but much of it came probably in about 5 to 10 minutes.
Watch Maatta skate or read a play, and it’s tough not to notice his skating or vision. Talk to him and, as Johnston said, “You couldn’t have a more positive young guy.”
“A lot of people would look at the other end of the ice and say (Maatta and Letang are) dynamic offensively,” Johnston said. “For me, they escape the zone quick and clean. They’re fast on the retrievals. They get back for pucks. They’re deceptive on the breakout. Then they can activate into the breakout to give our forwards options.
“We’d like to get them together as much as we can through the preseason to try and get them comfortable with each other.”
Maatta can’t wait.
“Being out for 10 months, it feels good to be back out there with the guys,” he said. “The practices are tough, but I’m happy to do it. I’m really excited just to be out there.”