By Shelly Anderson In his first season as Pittsburgh GM, Jim Rutherford got only a small sampling of Olli Maatta’s work, just 20 games. Still, what Rutherford saw on and off the ice left him with no qualms about elevating the young Finn to the rarefied status of being one of the Penguins’ core players entering 2015-16, Maatta’s third season. Up front, Pittsburgh has
Sidney Crosby and
Evgeni Malkin. In goal,
Marc-Andre Fleury. On defense,
Kris Letang – and now Maatta. “We’re going to rely on him heavily and more like a veteran player,” Rutherford said. “We are going to transition our defense into younger guys, but we’ll lean on him a lot.”
Maatta, 21, is recovering well from Jan. 14 shoulder surgery – the same procedure he had after 2013-14. “I tried to rehab it and get it stronger, tried to play with it, but I couldn’t do it,” Maatta said of the choice to have the second surgery.
“It’s kind of naive for me to try to come back, not to think about the future. This has made me a little more mature.” Maatta already seemed wise beyond his years. That, along with his strong skating, solid positioning and ability to move the puck, helped him stick with the Penguins as a 19-year-old rookie in 2013-14, when he was more than steady, with nine goals and 29 points. Then came last November. A lump discovered in his thyroid gland was surgically removed and diagnosed as cancer. Maatta stood behind a podium and matter-of-factly outlined his relief that no further treatment was needed and his desire to put it behind him. It was a “wow” moment even for those already impressed with his poise. That includes Rutherford, who, as Carolina’s GM, looked closely at Maatta and was set to draft him eighth overall in 2012 before the draft-day
Jordan Staal trade sent that pick to Pittsburgh. The Penguins nabbed Maatta at No. 22. “He was in a different country, didn’t have his family here – a very, very young man dealing with a tough situation,” Rutherford said of Maatta’s cancer scare. “I don’t care what age you are, that’s a difficult thing.” Maatta missed only six games. He had a goal and eight assists when he left the lineup for good because of his shoulder. “I’ve never had a season like that, and I hope I never will,” Maatta said. “I hope I have nothing else but good luck left.”
This feature appears in the 2014-15 Season Commerative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.