Penguins plan to keep defenseman Maatta for more than audition
Olli Maatta is staying for a while.
The Penguins will allow Maatta, a 19-year-old defenseman, to play in more than nine games, multiple sources told the Tribune-Review.
That decision was reached before Maatta’s pivotal role on the tying goal in the Penguins’ 4-3 shootout victory over Vancouver at Consol Energy Center on Saturday afternoon.
Maatta, the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, played in his eighth game. He cannot play in more than nine games without this season counting as the first of an entry-level contract.
The Penguins’ ninth game is against Colorado at Consol Energy Center on Monday.
The number with more meaning for the Penguins regarding Maatta is 40, sources said.
That is the number of games in which Maatta can play for this to count as an accrued season. Playing an accrued season could allow Maatta to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 season, when Maatta would be 25.
Management has not determined if Maatta will stay in the NHL for the entire season, but only because the Penguins want to see how he handles the physical and mental grind, the sources said.
He continued to handle himself well Saturday.
Maatta started then finished a 3-on-2 rush, poking a rebound off left winger Chris Kunitz’s shot past Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo with about seven minutes remaining in regulation.
The goal, Maatta’s first in the NHL, was scored 22 seconds after the Canucks had taken a 3-2 lead.
“It was a pretty good play by (captain Sidney Crosby) and ‘Kuni’,” Maatta said after receiving a congratulatory handshake from Penguins legend Mario Lemieux inside the dressing room.
“It was a 3-on-2. When you have it, you join the rush. That’s hockey.”
That combination of on-ice awareness and emotional cool is consistent with what Maatta has shown the Penguins since a prospect camp in July, said Bill Guerin, the club’s player development coach.
“You don’t see many 19-year-old defensemen jump into a play like that,” Guerin said. “Olli’s mature for his age. He’s not overly emotional. He’s very guarded.
“And he’s built like a man.”
Maatta, listed at 6-foot-2, 206 pounds, can’t play in the minors this season because of an arrangement between the NHL and junior hockey.
Maatta could play only for the Penguins, his junior club in London or possibly a professional league overseas such as the Finland’s SM Liiga.
However, management’s growing belief is that Maatta will develop better by staying in the NHL, the sources said. In fact, management had determined he was worth an NHL audition during a pre-training camp prospect tournament, the sources said.
Though the organization is deepest on defense at the NHL and prospect level, Maatta is viewed as no worse than the sixth-best option at that position, the sources said.
Kris Letang, the Penguins’ injured top defenseman, has lobbied coaches to push for Maatta to stay in the NHL.
Through eight games, Maatta has scored a goal, recorded two assists an averaged 15:14 of ice time — fifth among defensemen and 10th overall among Penguins.
He is a plus or even player in six games when paired with Robert Bortuzzo as a defense partner.
“I don’t know if it’s a style thing or what … but he’s a real confident kid, and that goes a long way,” Bortuzzo said.
“He just has a professional attitude, like he’s completely ready for this.”