It would have been understandable if he struggled some — after all, he is only a 19-year old rookie, but the Pittsburgh Penguins‘ 2012 first-round pick Olli Maatta played like anything but a rookie in his NHL debut on Thursday night.
Really only getting the opportunity because the Penguins’ top defenseman Kris Letang was put on IR to start the year, Maatta certainly made his first appearance a memorable one. The Jyvaskyla, Finland native wasn’t flashy by any means, but his play in his own end gave Pens fans a glimpse at the kid’s bright future.
In 14:44 of ice time, the rookie was credited for two blocked shots, one hit and one shot on goal. It doesn’t seem like too much, but his stick work had both Jay Caufield and Bob Errey (and myself at home) raving throughout the game.
With his 6-foot-2 frame, he was able to poke at the puck carrier, all the while keeping enough space so that he didn’t let the defender skate around him. Maatta was positionally sound throughout, never taking a chance on a pinch or hit. The same could be said about his play with the puck as he played the ‘safe’ route all night, choosing the short, logical pass to avoid trouble.
As the game went on, he saw more ice time and though he never seemed uncomfortable at any point, you can tell that he settled in by the end of the game and let loose for one rush on offense, being a part of a 3-on-2 odd man rush.
It doesn’t sound like Letang’s injury is too serious, so when he returns, it will put the Penguins in quite the predicament. Maatta has to play 10 games before a year is burned off his entry level deal (he can be sent back to his junior team after nine and retain it), and with the loaded blue line the Penguins have, it would seem like that would be the obvious answer, but is it?
It’s hard to make a good case in rushing a 19-year old player who plays a position which pundits say is the hardest to transition into, especially when a team has built such great depth at the NHL and AHL level. And really, there is no point in rushing him when they have the NHL players that they do, and the likes of Simon Despres and Brian Dumoulin waiting at Wilkes-Barre.
But if the first game is any indication, Maatta is going to give the Penguins every reason to keep him over the next eight games. Who knows, Maatta could be exactly what the Penguins’ defense needs.
Anthony Murphy is a contributing writer for RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @AMurphyTFC