“You don’t expect a player that age, in his first year, to step into a top-minutes, top-pair role, a matchup pair. For him and his progression, his last 20 [games] have looked even stronger than what we saw earlier in the season. To be able to have him play there with injuries to two top-four guys in Martin and Letang, it’s pretty amazing.”
That’s Dan Bylsma from this past weekend remarking on the incredible season Olli Maatta is currently having. Maatta has exceeded every expectation imaginable, and though talks of a Calder Trophy and Niklas Lidstrom comparisons could be a bit of a reach, he’s still been one of the most important players on one of the best teams in the league.
His play has almost made it too easy to forget he’s only 19.
Mark Madden wrote a piece today proclaiming Maatta as being the best defenseman on the team and backed it up with some strong points:
“Matt Niskanen is having a career year. He has mostly partnered with Olli Maatta. Brooks Orpik got a lift recently by playing in tandem with Maatta. Right now, it’s Rob Scuderi’s turn to skate with Maatta. Maatta has nine goals and 19 assists in 68 games. He’s plus-eight. He’s handled everything he’s been asked to do with poise and maturity far beyond his 19 years.”
Tough to discount what Niskanen has done this season if we’re talking about the best defenseman this season, but we’ll digress for now because Maatta has been right there.
Yes, Niskanen is having a career year spending basically the entire season paired with Maatta, and there’s no doubt that Orpik has looked much better after recently spending time paired with him, but lately it’s Maatta who has been making mistakes that we’re not accustomed to seeing. Credit some of what we’ve seen to bad luck, but as good as Maatta has been, we’re throwing up a red flag.
Is it possible Maatta has hit a wall?
The first thing to consider would be the fact that he’s 19 and logically could be wearing down mentally or physically towards the end of his first full NHL season. Any argument that Maatta could be tired instantly becomes valid as his minutes have increased since returning from Sochi.
Before Sochi: 22 shifts per game; 17:53 average TOI
After Sochi: 27 shifts per game; 21:46 average TOI
Burning out because of increased ice-time would make sense on its own, especially since he’s never played this many games in one season, but there is also the whole Niskanen breakup thing to consider as well.
Maatta began pairing with Orpik during the March 4th game at Nashville. For the Dallas game this past Tuesday, he was assigned to Rob Scuderi who has been a train wreck in his own right. In the nine games since March 4, Maatta has three points, however two came in the game against San Jose. Besides the visual mistakes, the biggest indication there’s been a decline in his play comes byway of his possession stats.
5-on-5 shot attempts before March 4: +48
5-on-5 shot attempts since: -62
The good news here is Paul Martin and possibly even Kris Letang could be returning soon. This would likely reunite Maatta and Niskanen again as the third pairing. Even if the recent struggles are due to fatigue, reuniting with Niskanen would only benefit Maatta. Other positives: Martin lends consistency to Orpik, and Letang is the one guy on the team who skates well enough to pull around Scuderi for an entire game.
The Pens gave Maatta a rest earlier this season after several poor performances. He responded by playing some of his best hockey leading to a strong showing in the Olympics. With the Pens all but assured the second seed in the Eastern Conference, they would be right to sit Maatta down once again.
With 13 basically meaningless games remaining and the next four at home, they have the perfect opportunity to rest Maatta now, and anyone else for that matter –even if they’re saying they don’t need it. Besides the signs of declining play, resting Maatta now seems like it would be logical for the Pens as they begin preparing for the playoffs. Taking advantage of their cushion in the standings almost makes too much sense.