Back in October, there was a serious debate among fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins about whether or not the team had made the right choice in keeping Olli Maatta around for the entire season. He'd played well through his first nine games, but was he really ready to help the Stanley Cup-contending Penguins at the age of 19?
Even after that decision was made, Rob Rossi of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review made it a point to note that the team could send Maatta back to the London Knights prior to the 40-game mark and not burn a year off of his free-agent clock:
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.
A lot can change in a matter of two months. Now the Finnish native is entrenched in the race to win the Calder Trophy for best first-year player, and he could very well win it.
If there were questions about Maatta's mental and physical wherewithal before, there aren't now. Not after all he's done to to help the team thrive without various combinations of their usual top-six defensive core.
The Penguins told Maatta that he'd be sticking in the NHL on October 25. At that point, it was a simple matter of blue-line depth. Kris Letang had literally just made his season debut, and Pittsburgh liked using Maatta on the third pairing.
Through the month of October, the teenager averaged around 14 minutes a game and played less than 15 in seven of his 13 contests. Then the injury bug hit. The Penguins began to lose bodies a day after deciding to not return Maatta to his junior team.
On October 26, Rob Scuderi broke his ankle, and he has yet to return to the lineup for the Penguins. Slowly but surely, different pieces of Pittsburgh's defense were either injured or suspended. Paul Martin went down a month after Scuderi on November 25; he hasn't returned to the lineup either. Letang has also struggled to maintain his health and has played in only 24 of a possible 39 contests this season.
Tack on the injury that Brooks Orpik "sustained" on December 7 and Deryk Engelland for hitting Justin Abdelkader in the head on December 14, and there has been a ton of time for the remaining defensemen to eat up.
One of those steady blueliners has been Maatta, who has seen his average ice time jump each month this season. In November, he was playing 17 minutes a night. In December, he's been on the ice around 21 minutes a game, typically playing up against the opposition's top players.
Earlier this month, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma spoke to Tal Pinchevsky of NHL.com about Maatta's poise under the new and mounting pressures his playing time has brought:
The role is bigger. He's playing against the other team's best players right now. We're seeing him in a big penalty kill role as well. He's certainly been up to the task. He's a 19-year-old kid, but he certainly hasn't played like it at all in the first 36 games. His minutes are going up because of the injuries we have, but the consistency with which he plays has not changed. That's been there since training camp.
It could be argued that Maatta has been Pittsburgh's most important defenseman this season. Given the team's impressive record at this point, that's an important distinction. While the Calder Trophy is typically awarded to a player with offensive prowess—just ask Jonas Brodin—what Maatta has done might be impossible to ignore when the awards ceremony rolls around this July.
His chances could simply boil down to Pittsburgh's health. If they continue to lose bodies on a weekly basis, then he'll continue to play massive minutes and will challange for the Calder. If they end up with an entirely healthy contingent, Maatta would see his ice time drop significantly, and the probability of him winning will be all but snuffed out.
Regardless of whether or not he ends up with any hardware at the end of this campaign, there's absolutely no denying that the Penguins landed another special player in the waning selections of the first round when they picked Maatta at No. 22 in 2012.