Maatta spoils Knights’ plans, saves Penguins’ skin

Ahead-of-schedule prospect Olli Maatta has bailed out an injury-plagued Penguins blueline this season.

While London Knights GM Mark Hunter had to resort to Plan B, he was more than happy to see 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta stick with the Pittsburgh Penguins this year, even if it put a dent in his team’s blueline as it prepared to host the Memorial Cup next spring. “We take a different spin on it,” Hunter said. “They have seven ‘D’ on one-way contracts, so it’s a credit to Olli that he earned a spot up there.

”The Knights are proud of their development model and in this case, the defending Ontario League champs may have been victims of their own success. “The best practice is playing as many games as you can,” Maatta said. “And I had two long seasons, two good seasons, with London.”

So don’t feel bad for the Knights. The Penguins certainly don’t. “The Hunter brothers (Dale coaches London) do an incredible job developing NHLers,” said Tom Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh’s assistant to the GM. “But this was about Olli Maatta helping the Pittsburgh Penguins. The day you send him back to junior, you don’t get him back that year.”

With stud defenseman Kris Letang starting the year on the shelf, the Penguins were happy to have Maatta around, and Maatta even saw time on a pairing with the flashy rearguard before Letang landed on injured reserve again. Taken 22nd overall by the Penguins in 2012, Maatta came to North America with excellent shutdown skills, then broke out offensively during his first OHL playoff run. The Penguins tested him at training camp and the Finn passed with flying colors. “He’s got ice in his veins,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s no panic.

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”Though making the Penguins means Maatta doesn’t get to play at the World Junior Championship, nor will he appear in a third straight Memorial Cup, Pittsburgh has bigger plans, ones that could see him raise hockey’s ultimate chalice. “We see him as a viable player in the NHL playoffs,” Fitzgerald said. “Does he make us a better team? The answer is yes.”

Maatta is just the first of a bumper crop of blueline prospects in the Pens’ system. Scott Harrington, a former London teammate, as well as Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot are also part of Pittsburgh’s future. “I hope in a few years we’ll all be playing for the Penguins,” Maatta said. “That would be awesome.”

This feature originally appeared in the Dec. 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.