Why Olli Maatta Is the Best Rookie Defenseman in the NHL

Franklin Steele@FranklinSteeleAnalyst IIMarch 18, 2014

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta (3) waits for a face off during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders in Pittsburgh Friday, Oct. 25, 2013. The Islanders won 4-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Aside from goaltender, defenseman is the most nuanced position at the NHL level. That's not to say jumping into a No. 1 center role is a cakewalk, but your mistakes are generally amplified when you're doing a majority of your work in the defensive zone.

That's why this season's crop of rookie defensemen is so impressive. From Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets to Nashville Predators mainstay Seth Jones, the league has seen a surge of strong yet youthful defenders jump in and become impact players.

While the hypothetical race to be the best young blueliner is tight, no first-year defenseman has been more impressive than Olli Maatta.

Olli Maatta after the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him in 2012.
Olli Maatta after the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him in 2012.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The 22nd player taken in the 2012 draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie didn't come into the season with as much hype as players like Torey Krug or even Hampus Lindholm. Maatta wasn't expected to make the team out of training camp.

The top two pairings were squared away, and the competition among Pittsburgh's young defensemen was tight. Simon Despres and Derrick Pouliot had the inside track to make the jump to the NHL, while Maatta was in camp for the experience.

That quickly changed as the youthful Finn showed poise beyond his years. An injury to Kris Letang left the door open for Maatta to gain some big league experience, but he wasn't expected to stick once the lineup was healthy.

The Penguins have seen their blue line taken apart by injuries all year long, and Maatta gets better each and every time he sees his role increased. Head coach Dan Bylsma thinks Maatta deserves consideration for the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most outstanding rookie.

He spoke to Wes Crosby of NHL.com recently and had this to say about Maatta:

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. It screams to me consideration for rookie of the year.

Because of those injuries and because of Maatta's cool demeanor, Bylsma has been able to roll the teenager out with confidence all season long. While it's unlikely that the Penguin will win the Calder—Nathan MacKinnon has all but wrapped that award up—Maatta has been the best freshman blueliner in the NHL.

It seems like the other rookies around the league have dealt with at least a mild amount of growing pains. Jones started the season in a top pairing alongside Shea Weber but has since been replaced by Roman Josi.

Seth Jones is one of Olli Maatta's main competitors among top-end rookie defensemen.
Seth Jones is one of Olli Maatta's main competitors among top-end rookie defensemen.Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

That isn't to say that last year's No. 4 pick hasn't made some impressive playshe has. The Predators just haven't given him the same level of responsibility that Maatta has commanded in Pittsburgh.

While Jones is averaging more than 20 minutes a night for head coach Barry Trotz, he's seen his role slowly reduced as the season has worn on. He hasn't broken the 20-minute barrier since February 6, according to ESPN.com.

On the other hand, Maatta continues to be given important matchups against the opposition's best players. He hasn't been perfect—he was a combined minus-four in this weekend's back-to-back set against the Philadelphia Flyers—but on the whole he's been alarmingly solid.

He's a plus-eight on the year, but prior to this weekend his total would have been good enough to crack the top 30 defensemen in the league overall (not just among rookies).

Maatta has also seen a jump in his offensive game as he's gained more experience. Usually younger defenders are tasked with concentrating on one side of the blue line or the other, but he's been able to play a bigger role with the puck since the first month or so of the season.

28 points, plus-eight, 105 shots on goal—strong overall numbers from a guy that wasn't supposed to be in the NHL for another year or two. Maatta has made it impossible for one of the deepest defensive teams in the league to send him back to the OHL, and that speaks volumes about his high level of play.

His offensive prowess isn't on the same level of Krug, but the Boston Bruin can't match Maatta in all three zones. Trouba may hit more frequently than the Penguin, but Maatta arguably sees tougher matchups. While there are defensemen around the NHL that thrive in one particular aspect of the game more than Pittsburgh's top rookie, no one plays a more complete overall game.

That's why Maatta is the league's best rookie defenseman.