October 21 marks the 9th game in the Penguins’ young season. That would be the last date for the team to choose to keep Olli Maatta or return him to the London Knights of the OHL without burning off a year on his entry-level contract. Few decisions will be more difficult for GM Ray Shero to make all year.
Maatta has become something of a polarizing figure amongst Pens fans and for all the right reasons: he’s been too good. What started as a matter of convenience–the Penguins needed a defenseman in the absence of Kris Letang, and they needed someone with a low, temporary salary that could easily be returned to the AHL or Juniors in light of the team’s cap conundrums–has now become an issue of greater importance: this is a player that has proven he DESERVES to stay with the NHL team, now the Penguins need to decide whether he CAN stay with the team.
Counting the Top-6
Entering the season it looked like another year in which the Penguins would have to address significant questions surrounding their defense. A situation that has typically been the rule, not the exception, surrounding the team since the introduction of the salary cap in the 2005-06 season. Surely the top-5 were more clearly defined than in most seasons: Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik ended the 2013 campaign as one of the finest shutdown pairings in the league, Kris Letang, fresh off his first Norris Trophy finalists run, would have the opportunity to play with the newly (re)signed Rob Scuderi, and Matt Niskanen would be in a position to play his way into the top-4, if not in Pittsburgh then in a new city, in the final year of his current contract. But there were huge questions as to who would fill out that last starting spot.
At first blush Simon Despres seemed destined for the spot. In his end-of-year press conference, Head Coach Dan Bylsma suggested that Despres ought to be in position to skate in the Pens’ top-4 this year, a position that was revoked when the Penguins surprised many and found money to sign Scuderi on the first day of free agency. Despres’ stock only continued to fall, however, as he entered training camp out of shape (a result of illness), and failed to impress in his time with the big team, before ultimately being sent to the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins in an attempt to give him time to play significant minutes.
Coming into the season, the biggest wildcard for the Penguins was Robert Bortuzzo. In limited exposure with the NHL team over the previous two seasons Bortz seemed like a quality third pairing option. he was big, hard hitting, and capable of dropping the gloves in defense of his teammates when needed. Despite that, and numerous gushing reviews from people in the team’s hockey operations department, Bortuzzo was still forced to threaten salary arbitration before coming to terms with the team on a new deal. Now don’t get me wrong, Bortz has been great. His game is plain and boring, exactly what you need from a number-6 defenseman. So now the question is, has Robert Bortuzzo been better than Olli Maatta? Well, the answer isn’t clear.
Overall Bortz has averaged more TOI per game (14:50 compared to 14:41 TOI/G), as well as significantly more time on the penalty kill (1:02 compared to :17 seconds SH TOI/G) while Maatta has had the opportunity to spend some time on the power play (:51 compared to :12 seconds PP TOI/G). Conversely, Maatta has chipped in two assists while Bortz is the only Pens defenseman to have played the majority of the team’s games and not record a point.
Uh huh, so, Bortz gets a little more ice time in more defensive situations, but Maatta has produced some points with his enhanced offensive opportunity. Nothing to see here folks.
Maybe we can tell the two apart if we look at their advanced statistics, at first glance it looks like Bortz has played the most sheltered minutes of all the team’s defensemen, his -2.22 CorsiRelQoC is right up there with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, which seemingly suggests that the coaches are trying to match him up against weak competition. But it should be noted that he was held out against the offensively prolific Tampa Bay Lightning, if he had played, his CorsiRelQoC, which can be better understood here, would probably be consistent with Maatta’s.
To measure whether these guys have truly been playing sheltered minutes, let’s consider their offensive and defensive zone faceoffs: offensively speaking they are actually both in the bottom half of the team, 9th and 10th out of 15 players who have logged at least 50 minutes this season. And as far as defensive zone starts, well so far nobody has started more shifts in the defensive zone than Bortuzzo, and Maatta is close on his heels with the third largest percentage. So, in other words, they may still be playing weak competition, but the Penguins coaching staff certainly is not babying them.
So What Will the Penguins Do?
This was intended to be a piece to advocate for keeping Olli Maatta in Pittsburgh. The closer I have examined the stats surrounding Maatta and his chief competition for the team’s final starting spot and current linemate, Robert Bortuzzo, I am less certain that Maatta SHOULD stay in Pittsburgh when Kris Letang returns to the team. It’s not that Maatta is not deserving to stay, in fact both he and Bortuzzo have been almost freakishly good despite possessing barely 20 games of NHL experience between them. The issue is that keeping Maatta would necessarily further restrict Bortuzzo’s development. That’s a decision that doesn’t make sense given that Bortuzzo is entering the make or break period of his professional development, whereas Maatta has barely even begun his. A common argument among Penguins fans has been that 15 minutes in the NHL are more valuable than 22 minutes in the OHL, they are, but I’m not convinced that they are more valuable than 25 minutes/game in the World Juniors, potentially as Team Finland’s captain. That is part of the opportunity cost of keeping Maatta in Pittsburgh for the rest of the NHL season, and that is an opportunity that might do more to shape Maatta’s development than any NHL experience possibly could.
The time for Maatta in Pittsburgh is coming. Both Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are in the final year of their current contracts. Even with the expectation of a rising salary cap, seeing either return, at this immediate juncture, seems unlikely. Further, given what the team has already learned about Maatta, it wouldn’t make sense for GM Ray Shero to even contemplate returning both of those veterans. So what’s the takeaway? Maatta doesn’t deserve to go back to the OHL, he looks, acts, and performs like an NHL player. But sometimes that’s still not enough.