The ever-increasing accolades used to describe Olli Maatta make the rookie sound more like a 10-year veteran and less like an NHL newcomer.
Maatta’s unpretentious stance toward life – driving a non-flashy Jeep Grand Cherokee, enjoying mushroom soup and naming the English Dictionary his favourite book – further augments the persona he’s developing in NHL circles.
At just 19 years old, the Penguins 2012 Draft Pick (22nd overall) deflects attention with aplomb, shifting focus to coaching and the environment that reared him.
So humble in fact, that Maatta believes the EA folks made him “a little better in the video game” than in real life.
But, that self-effacing approach is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Finnish hockey products, even the new crop of potential stars, including Maatta, Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers) and Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild).
Finland’s Jarmo Kekalainen, the Columbus Blue Jackets general manager says, “Finnish players are very team-oriented and not flamboyant. Finnish teams are strong because egos are put aside.”
Though he fits the “mold,” Maatta isn’t your typical Finnish hockey player.
After spending time in the second-tier senior league Mestis as a youth, Maatta opted to play junior hockey in Canada in the Ontario Hockey League where he starred for the London Knights, rather than joining his peers in Finland’s top division, the SM-Liiga.
“Olli is a great young man who was raised right by his parents. He was convinced about taking a different path to the OHL instead of the SM-Liiga. He is a courageous young man who blazed his own trail, which is paying off now,” added Kekalainen.
Maatta’s decision is producing massive dividends in 2013-14, as the Penguins defenseman has become a fixture on the blueline after impressing Dan Bylsma in preseason camp.
“Olli is a pretty unique package of several fine qualities,” Kekalainen opined. “First of all, he’s big, strong and a good defender. And, what we’re seeing more of now is how eager he is to jump into the play and take more offensive responsibility.”
Pittsburgh’s management was similarly impressed when it included Maatta on the opening day roster, and after an impressive (and required) 10-game NHL vetting period for NHL rookies, Maatta was given a permanent position in the black and gold.
Being named to the Penguins roster was, “...one of the best days of my life for sure,” boasted Maatta. “I’ve been working hard for this my whole life. Playing in the NHL is a goal I’ve wanted to accomplish and nobody can take that away from me.”
It’s been a quick ascension for Maatta, whose name is squarely in the NHL Rookie of the Year discussion, being tied for second of all first-year defencemen with 29 points and a plus-14 rating in 78 games.
“He’s such a rare product of Finnish hockey, the last guy that was similar is Teppo Numminen. You have to go back to him for the last guy that produced so quickly,” said Kekalainen.
“No Finnish player was a difference maker at such a young age like Olli, not even [Teemu] Selanne,” he added.
It’s true – Selanne earned Rookie of the Year in 1992 in astonishing fashion, scoring 76 goals for the Winnipeg Jets. But, Selanne was 22 years old in his first NHL season, and an established player in Europe.
Maatta’s 18-plus minutes per game and inclusion on both special teams units are more evidence that Dan Bylsma’s faith in Maatta grows stronger by the day.
According to Kekalainen, Maatta’s rise in the NHL is a product of his character. “Olli is very down to earth with both feet on the ground. When he listens, he really absorbs the material, learns and wants to get better.”
“Olli has a quiet confidence. He’s not rattled after a mistake and if he’s a healthy scratch, it’s not problem,” added Kekalainen. “He doesn’t get star-struck.”
Yet, if you ask Maatta, he might have been a bit in awe during the Olympics, when the youngster played for Finland’s bronze medal winning team.
“Just being part of that team and playing with my idols growing up was amazing,” said Maatta.
He indentified Kimmo Timonen, Sami Salo and Teemu Selanne as those heroes he watched as young hockey player.
“Me and Sasha (Aleksander) Barkov laughed that neither of us were even born when Selanne played in his first Olympics,” Maatta joked.
Maatta credits the bronze medal to having the most complete team in Sochi.
“We may not have had the most skill players, but we played together and that can bring you far in a tournament,” he explained. “Winning the bronze medal with these guys I idolized is a major accomplishment for me already.”
Sami Salo – who is a full 20 years older than Maatta - was Olli’s defensive partner in Sochi and the veteran blueline taught his younger countryman a lot during those three weeks.
“I was really nervous to play with him, but he calmed me down. Sami is simple on and off the ice and doesn’t get nervous at all,” added Maatta. “Being paired with him calmed me down during the Olympics and he shared about being a good NHL player.”
Maatta has every opportunity to flourish in Pittsburgh as part of a perennial powerhouse adorned with one of the NHL’s most talented rosters.
“There are plays in a game when I just take a step back and say, did you just see that? Given the breathtaking plays they can make, it’s amazing being part of this team,” Maatta exclaimed.
“They” refers to the likes of superstar teammates, Sidney Crosby and Yevgeni Malkin, who the Penguins also drafted in the first round.
Maatta was considered a top-ten talent heading into the 2012 draft, however an overabundance of elite defensemen in the crop dropped him to the twenty-second pick where the Penguins nabbed him.
Rather than lamenting his draft slot, Maatta is thankful that quality team selected him later in the first round.
“When I think back to draft day, I couldn’t have been luckier with the Penguins drafting me,” added Maatta. It’s a great organization with plenty of young talent.”
Maatta might say all the right things, but don’t let his demure demeanor fool you.
He wants to win and he wants to win now and with the Penguins as one of the top seeds in the playoffs, Maatta has a great opportunity, which he focuses on daily.
“You want to have the chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Maatta asserted. You want to win and that’s how you keep your focus throughout a long season.”
It’s early days for Maatta, so if a Stanley Cup doesn’t happen in 2014, there will be plenty of other opportunities for the ascending star.
But how high is his ceiling in professional hockey?
Olli says the “sky is the limit” for him, wishing to one day rise to Nicklas Lidstrom’s (the first European captain to ever win the Stanley Cup) stature in the NHL.
But, Kekalainen has even higher praise in terms of Maatta’s future.
“You can’t compare him. I think he’s going to be Olli Maatta and an Olli Maatta who’s going to be a pretty special player in the NHL.”