Penguins sign defenseman Maatta to 6-year extension

PITTSBURGH (AP) Olli Maatta felt like a Pittsburgher from the moment the Penguins took the talented teenager with the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the one held on the floor of the Consol Energy Center.

''It started to feel like home straightaway,'' Maatta said.

That's why Maatta didn't feel the need to look elsewhere. Rather than pursue free agency down the road, Maatta instead agreed to a six-year contract extension with Pittsburgh on Friday that will keep the 21-year-old in black-and-gold through the 2021-22 season.

The deal carries an annual average value of $4.1 million and makes Maatta part of a core that includes centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, all of whom are signed through at least the 2018-19 season.

''I want to be a big part of this team,'' Maatta said. ''I want to produce out there and I just don't want to be part of a team, I want to be able to play a big role.''

Maatta has six goals and 10 assists in 53 games for the Penguins this season. He leads Pittsburgh's defenseman and is second on the team in plus/minus differential at plus-18 while playing alongside Letang.

''One of Olli's strengths is his hockey sense,'' coach Mike Sullivan said. ''He sees the ice well and makes pretty good decisions with the puck. He has the ability to play at both ends of the rink.''

Maatta's precociousness was evident almost immediately. He made the team coming out of training camp in 2013 just a handful of weeks after his 19th birthday. His progress hit a roadblock last year, when a cancer scare and surgery on his left shoulder limited him to just 20 games.

''I just tried to get last season out of the way,'' Maatta said. ''I don't think about it anymore. I'm just happy I'm back on the ice and I feel great playing out there.''

Maatta's steady play has made him a good fit for the electric Letang, who isn't afraid to jump into the play on offense. Maatta has shown to be a deft passer but usually plays the quiet partner in his dynamic on-ice partnership with Letang, which is totally fine by the soft-spoken kid from Jyvaskyla, Finland.

''The way he's playing is unbelievable,'' Maatta said of Letang. ''(Sometimes) I feel like a decoy because he can do so much himself. He's been a really good help for me.''

And Maatta has been a good help for the Penguins, who are in a heated race for one of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spots. He's proven effective at clearing space in front of the Pittsburgh net by tying up an opponent's stick or using his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame to nudge players out of the way.

While the Penguins remain in the market for help on defense heading into next week's trade deadline after losing veteran Ben Lovejoy to an injury the team is describing as ''long-term,'' they believe locking Maatta down until the next decade will pay dividends for years to come.

''Hopefully Olli will get a lot of confidence out of it because he'll understand how this organization values him and how good of a player he is,'' Sullivan said.

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NOTES: Malkin, who hasn't played since Feb. 2 with a lower-body injury, is expected to return to the lineup on Saturday against Winnipeg. ... Center Nick Bonino, who's been out while dealing with a concussion since Jan. 12, is also expected to play against the Jets.

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