Penguins’ Olli Maatta finding niche as young veteran |
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Jonathan Bombulie
The Canucks’ Bo Horvat pinches the Penguins’ Olli Maatta in the first period Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018 at PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta is a rare combination of youth and experience.

Playing his sixth season with the team, he’s the fourth-longest tenured player on the roster, trailing only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Having turned 24 in August, he also is the third youngest player on the team. Only Daniel Sprong and Jake Guentzel are younger. Matt Murray and Dominik Simon were born a matter of weeks before Maatta in 1994.

It puts Maatta in an interesting place in his career.

Is he a veteran who can dispense sage wisdom to the next generation, or a youngster counted on to bring excitement and enthusiasm to the locker room?

Maatta isn’t sure. He just knows he’s a lot more comfortable now than his rookie year, when he was 19 and the second-youngest lineup regular was 24-year-old Brandon Sutter.

“I was youngest by a long mile,” Maatta said. “Now it feels like there’s more and more young guys coming up. The age group is definitely getting a little younger than it used to be.

“But it’s different for everybody. There’s no one way. You look at Sid, he’s the best in the world. He’s an exception. Geno’s an exception. They can just hop right in. For some guys, it takes a little longer. Look at (Guentzel). It took him a little longer to get in, but he hops in and he’s one of the better players. It really doesn’t matter what year you come in.”

These days, Maatta is reaping the rewards of the time he has put in.

He’s no longer a 19-year-old struggling with the most basic tasks.

“Like putting gas in your car,” he joked.

He’s a veteran who has learned how to deal with adversity.

Maatta’s first two games this season were forgettable, to say the least. When he was on the ice at even strength, the Penguins were outscored 3-0. By Game 3, he was a healthy scratch, making way for rookie Juuso Riikola to get his first taste of NHL action.

“There’s obviously going to be a good stretch of games, a bad stretch of games,” Maatta said. “When you have that bad stretch of games, I think it’s really important that you learn something from it and you battle through.”

On this occasion, the lesson was clear to Maatta: Keep it simple.

“I think just being around the league, you know how well you can play,” he said. “When you’ve got to get better, you maybe simplify things and stick to the basics and build that way.”

On the team’s recent road trip to Western Canada, Maatta’s approach paid off. When he was on the ice for games in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, the Penguins outscored their opponents 7-1.

Coach Mike Sullivan said he has liked what he’s seen from Maatta since he joined Jamie Oleksiak on the team’s second defense pair.

“Olli’s a good player. He’s played a lot of good hockey for us,” Sullivan said. “He’s very hard on himself. He’s his own toughest critic, and he has high expectations for himself. That’s part of what makes him the player and the person that he is.

“We believe in him. We know he’s a good defenseman. He’s a guy we rely on in so many areas. He might be one of our better defensemen making that first pass to help us get out of our end zone. He sees the ice extremely well. He goes back for pucks and he takes hits. He plays with a lot of courage. Those are all the reasons we really like him as a player.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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