Back in 1999, people were stressing out about Y2K and how computers were going to freak out and cause a worldwide meltdown because they couldn’t handle going from 19xx to 2000 in their year calculator. The ball dropped on December 31st, 1999 and…nothing. It was a lot of pre-millennium tension all for naught.
On a much smaller scale, that’s what this month’s Expansion Draft is like for hockey fans. The Vegas Golden Knights get to raid the cupboard for 1 player (and only 1 player) from each team. We’ll be doing our final Expansion Draft outlook next week, using the rules laid forth by the NHL in terms of protection arrangements and service time requirements. But one player that could be on the cusp is Penguins defenseman, Olli Maatta.
If you assume the Penguins are going to use the 7 forwards/3 defensemen protection alignment, then Kris Letang is a definite because of his no-movement clause. Justin Schultz sure appears to be a definite keep, as the restricted free agent has greatly boosted his value this year. That leaves one protection spot. The remaining candidates for that third spot include Maatta, Ian Cole, and Brian Dumoulin, who is a restricted free agent.
Just three years ago, Maatta would have been a no-brainer. He burst on to the scene as a 19-year old in the 2013-14 season and played extremely well, especially considering his age. His 9 goals and 20 assists, with steady work in the defensive zone, showed a very promising future. But then his 2014-15 season turned into a medical rap sheet that ran the gamut from removal of a cancerous tumor from his neck to shoulder surgery to…mumps. He would only play 20 games that year.
He came back to action last year and played just OK. Undaunted, or perhaps seizing an opportunity to buy low, GM Jim Rutherford signed Maatta to a lucrative 6 yr/$24.5M deal in February 2016. Rutherford was betting that he was buying low on a future top-4 level defenseman. Unfortunately, Olli Maatta has not been able to return to his past glory in his rookie season. Setting aside the time he missed this year due to a broken hand, it just appears that Maatta has no acceleration in his legs. For most of the year, he has been paired with Trevor Daley on the 3rd pairing of a defense corps that has been riddled with injuries. His point output of 1 goal and 6 assists was the lowest of his career, even including the 20-game season he had in 2014-15 when he had 1 goal and 8 assists. His possession stats this year (Corsi For % of 49.2) were the worst of his career.
But at times in this playoff run to the Cup this year, Maatta has shown flashes of why Rutherford and the Penguins committed to him with that long-term deal. Here’s Maatta in Game 4 of the Ottawa series joining the rush. This blast put the Pens up 1-0 and helped them even the series against the Senators on the road in Ottawa.
And then next game back in Pittsburgh, Maatta again opened the scoring for the Penguins off this Bryan Rust pass back to the point.
But Maatta giveth and he taketh away, too. In Game 1 against the Predators on Monday, Olli Maatta tried to close off his man behind the net. However, Austin Watson wriggled out of it, Maatta stumbles oddly, his defense partner Daley abandons the front of the net to try and cut Wilson off on the wraparound, but not before Wilson slides a perfect pass to Frederick Gaudreau…
And then in Game 2 versus the Predators on Wednesday, Pontus Aberg made a super individual effort, but still left Olli Maatta looking like a bewildered bystander on this opening goal:
So back to the dilemma at hand — what to do about Olli Maatta and the Expansion Draft? If the Penguins believe that he can re-capture the magic of his rookie year, then a cap hit of $4.1M for a 23-year old defenseman that can score and defend next season is well worth it. But if the Rutherford and the rest of the front office believe that Maatta has been beset by injuries and is unable to regain his defensive chops, thus consigning him to a third pairing, they should roll the dice (ugh…can’t believe I used a gambling pun) that Vegas may see his youth and snatch him up in the draft.
By not protecting Maatta, it would allow them to protect Ian Cole, who brings an element of toughness that doesn’t exist elsewhere on the blue line. Cole and his $2.1M salary for 2017-18 would be a tempting choice for the Vegas Golden Knights. He brings toughness, veteran leadership, and at least one Stanley Cup ring (maybe two?) to a young, unproven team. Alternatively, the Penguins could protect the solid-not-flashy Dumoulin instead. As a restricted free agent, his salary on his next contract will probably be in the $2M to $2.5M range. Dumoulin doesn’t have the offensive upside element to his game that Maatta does, but he has a much steadier hand on the till in the defensive end than Maatta.
There would understandably be some howls if Maatta is left unprotected and Vegas does scoop him up. But I can’t get the image of his labored skating out of my head. It seems like rookie year Maatta is a player that may not be coming back. If the Penguins can offload his $4.1M cap hit, it will allow them some flexibility as they try to re-sign some of their RFA’s, like Schultz and Dumoulin, for instance.