The Blackhawks acquired left-handed defenseman Olli Maatta from the Penguins in exchange for winger Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick Saturday night. Maatta, who will turn 25 in August, is signed for three more seasons with a $4.083-million salary cap hit.
In order to get to know Maatta better and what he can bring to the Blackhawks, Second City Hockey asked a few questions to Jim Rixner (Hooks Orpik) of SB Nation’s Penguins site — Pensburgh.
How much of Maatta’s down season in 2018-19 can be attributed to playing with Jack Johnson and rookie Juuso Riikola?
You hit the nail on the head, it’s an oft-repeated observation — which isn’t untrue — that Maatta typically plays up or down to the quality of his partner. If he’s with a mobile, puck mover and just a good all around player (like Matt Niskanen or Justin Schultz) then the pair performs very well and drives great results. But Maatta will sink with weaker partners and struggle when playing with replacement level players like Jack Johnson or Juuso Riikola. For the Blackhawks moving forward it would be wise to manage lineup decisions with that in mind. In a perfect world Maatta is probably a really good team’s No. 4 guy, he can offer solid play as a second pair guy, but he doesn’t have a history of elevating lesser players.
What makes Maatta effective on the penalty kill? Chicago’s PK was terrible last season, so adding a player who does well in that area is good.
I don’t really think of Maatta as a PK specialist, but he’s certainly capable to play a regular shift there and help the club. He’s just a good defensive defenseman; excellent stick to deflect shot attempts away, very intelligent positional player who doesn’t often get beat to his assignments. He isn’t a physical player but has the size to box out in front of the net and he keeps it simple to get the puck and won’t mess around and successfully clear the puck and is capable enough to not bungle making a bad decision most of the time. Basic type of stuff, but Maatta is generally a very competent, steady and reliable player in his own end who will play a subtle but very effective game when he is sharp.
What’s his biggest downfall with skating? Speed, transition, stride, something else?
I’m no power skating expert, but it seems to me Maatta struggles when he has to pivot, move laterally and when he has to open up his upper body to twist and change his angle. That’s really where he looks stuck in quick-sand when he has to adjust if there’s a broken play or cross-ice pass or something that greatly alters where the play is going, or if the opposition can get to open space then Maatta has already lost.
Since he does have a great “hockey IQ” and sense of the game, he often is positioned well enough to make up for his deficiency and particularly if you look at stats from earlier than 2018-19 Maatta was able to suppress shots, scoring chances and goals against pretty well relative to his Pittsburgh teammates. It’s just that skating stands out when he gets burnt, but I think that leaves a lingering memory and probably happens less than the eye test might recall. But that’s also probably a reason why Maatta performs best with a mobile partner who can cover for him, and do a lot of the skating as far as picking guys up in the corners.
Regarding the foot speed, it’s a shame since he’s young and I’m not sure if one or more of his many injuries has taken a toll but he’s just not a great skater. And it’s surely not for a lack of effort, Maatta is always the guy the coaches have to chase from the ice after practice, and he spends so much time in the gym that once even Sidney Crosby told him to go home and take a break. He’ll definitely put in the work to the point of over-training and give more than an honest effort, but for whatever reason it just hasn’t helped on the ice.
But in some ways I think the skating aspect of Maatta is over-blown or, at least, over-analyzed. He’s not a speedy player and sometimes that gets him into trouble, but it’s not really something that totally holds him back or renders him completely ineffective. Confidence can be key, he’s playing well when he’s willing to pinch from the blue-line in and he has the talent and vision to be a player to produce a decent (but certainly not a ton) of points. To me, Maatta was one of the team’s best players in the 2016-17 Stanley Cup run (particularly in the Eastern Conference Final series vs. Ottawa where he was awesome) and he has a lot of experience and championship pedigree in a top-4 role.