If you would have asked me two months ago what I though about Penguins defensive prospect Olli Maata, I’d have given you a laundry list of complements about his excpetional skating ability and offensive prowess when carrying the puck. I would have told you that he has all the potential to become the next Kris Letang, and that I would be excited to keep an eye on the kind of season he has this year with the London Knights of the OHL.
However, if you would have told me that I would be getting to watch him full-time on an NHL roster, I
most likely would have laughed in your face like the smug, skeptical, smart-alec, know-it-all college student that my friends and family have come to know and (hopefully) love.
I mean, it makes no sense, right? After all, the Penguins already have one of the deepest prospect pools
when it comes defenseman, with at least two or three prospects that many of the experts had put ahead of Maata in terms of “NHL readiness”. It wouldn’t make sense to burn a year of his entry level contract on a green, 19-year old defenseman who had never played a professional game in North America, right?
After he surprised many by making the team out of training camp to replace the injured Kris Letang, Maata continued to impress fans of the Black and Gold as well as hockey analysts alike with his exceptionally strong play in the first nine NHL games of his career.
Poise? Check. Speed? Check. Hockey sense? Vision? Check and check. While I’m not saying he’s an All-Star after only a handful of games, Maata has more than earned the right to get an extended look with Pittsburgh this season, even if he doesn’t stay up the full 82-games.
Which brings us to the issue of his contract. Yes, if Maata plays in his 10th NHL game this Friday against the Islanders, it would count as a year off of his three year entry-level contract, even if they send him down two games later. Also, as is usual with most young prospects, the fear of burnout mid-way through the season is ever the distinct possibility, and with many expecting the Penguins to make the playoffs, keeping Maata up full-time increases the risk of him faltering in the postseason (see Letang, Kris). However, just because they keep him up for the time being doesn’t mean he has to stay up. GM Ray Shero could choose to send him back to junior at any point in the season.
But why burn a year of his deal if you’re not going to keep him up all year? In layman’s’ terms, why not? He’s earned it.
The bottom line is, right now, Olli Maata is one of the six-best defenseman that the Pens have, and with the injury issues that the Penguins blue-line has had in the past, keeping Maata NHL-ready could make all the difference if someone else goes down.
Finally, with the salary cap expected to go up significantly after this season and with the core of Penguins defenseman locked up until at least 2015, burning a year of Maata’s deal isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Shero is expected to make an announcement sometime tomorrow regarding Maata’s future this season, and if he has the foresight that everyone believes him to have, Maata will remain a Penguin at least a little while longer.