Feb 5, 2014; Buffalo, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta (3) during the game against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Olli Maatta--What Might Have Been for the Minnesota Wild

The Minnesota Wild were on a roll in 2011-12, leading the entire league in points as late as mid December. Unfortunately, a series of injuries to the club’s big players led to an absolute nose dive in the standings.

Minnesota would go from league-best to drafting seventh overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft the next June. That pick would be used on dynamic offensive defenseman Mathew Dumba, then of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels. However, another young defenseman playing for the Ontario league’s London Knights, Olli Maatta, would be drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins 15 picks later at 22nd overall. Two seasons later, it’s hard to imagine Maatta falling so far in the draft.

After scoring five goals and 27 assists for 32 points and a plus-25 rating in his draft eligible year as an OHL rookie in 2011-12, Maatta would return to the Knights for another season, scoring eight goals and 30 assists for 38 points and a plus-9 rating. His four goals and 10 assists in 21 playoff games were impressive, but down from his over a point-per-game pace the season before in which he scored six goals and 17 assists for 23 points in 19 games.

After being drafted and playing a second season in London, it appeared Maatta was ready to take the next step with the Penguins. As a rookie this season, Maatta is Pittsburgh’s second leading scorer from the blue line, scoring six goals and 17 assists for 23 points and a plus-12 rating while skating an average of 17:43 per night. Only six other defensemen in Pittsburgh’s history have scored 20 points or more in their rookie seasons.

To add another feather to his cap, Maatta would be chosen to represent his country on the game’s greatest stage at the Sochi Winter Olympics. In six games, the 19-year old defender would score three goals and two assists for five points and a plus-1 rating, leading Finland to a bronze medal over the Americans in becoming the tournament’s third-leading scorer from the blue line behind only Sweden’s Erik Karlsson and Canada’s Drew Doughty. There was no shortage of praise coming from his teammates.

While the good-natured comments about how young he looks flow freely through Finland’s locker room, there’s no question Maatta has become the next great defensive hope for a country known more for its flashy forwards and elite goaltenders than defensive stalwarts.

“There’s poise, there’s talent and … I don’t see the ceiling. I really don’t.  He’s special,” said Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Sami Salo, Maatta’s role model growing up and defensive partner in Sochi. “And you know, it’s good for Finnish hockey. It’s good  for all of us. We’ve been waiting for someone like him to arrive for a while.”

“Looks to me like the full package, and he’s still so young,” said Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask. “He  keeps it simple, doesn’t try to do too much, makes the right play. His head is  up all the time. He’s strong on the puck, great passer, big shot … what’s he missing?”

“I don’t think a lot of us knew about him until this year,” said Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen. “But  once you see him … it’s all there. And for him to be here and be part of this  experience at his age, I’m happy for him.”

Sounds an awful lot like the defensive version of one Mikael Granlund.

In the meantime, Mathew Dumba hasn’t been a total bust for the Minnesota Wild. After the draft, Dumba would return to Red Deer, scoring 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points and a plus-10 rating in 62 games–certainly impressive, but not when compared to the 20 goals and 37 assists for 57 points in 69 games during his draft eligible year.

This year, Dumba would stick with the team out of camp, scoring a power play goal and an assist for two points and a negative-5 rating in 13 games while averaging a sheltered 12:26 of ice-time per night. After scoring an assist and a plus-4 rating in seven games as an assistant captain for Team Canada at the 2014 Under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships, Dumba would be returned by the Wild to Portland of the Western Hockey League, who had acquired his rights from Red Deer in a trade earlier in the season. In 18 games with the dominating Winterhawks, Minnesota’s top selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft has scored three goals and 11 assists for 14 points and a plus-22 rating.

He’s been impressive, but he’s just not up to the level of a Jonas Brodin or Olli Maatta yet. With that in mind, did Wild Assistant GM Brent Flahr and his scouting staff drop the ball with the team’s No. 1 pick? Not necessarily.

When looking at Minnesota’s defensive corps, it’s easy to see why Dumba was so appealing. He’s physical, he’s dynamic, he’s offensive and he’s a right-shot defender–so many qualities in one package the Wild’s defensive prospect pool was sorely lacking at the time. The last right-shot defender to make a real offensive impact with the Wild was Brent Burns, and he’s since become the top right wing in San Jose. Jared Spurgeon has done a good job in his place, and has arguably been much better defensively. But this club has been missing a howitzer. Dumba can provide that howitzer.

However, it’s easy to wonder what it would’ve been like if it had been Maatta’s name called by Wild GM Chuck Fletcher that fateful day in Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center. Two inches taller and a good 15-pounds heavier than Dumba, Maatta would have fit right in with Minnesota’s other talented left-shots in Ryan Suter, Brodin and Marco Scandella, especially considering his favorite team growing up in Finland was the Wild. Even still, the team would have to address their weakness in right-shot defenders. The selection of Dumba addressed that, but expectations have been raised.

There was something about him that made Minnesota select Dumba so high in the draft. Fans will expect him to deliver on that promising potential when he finally reaches the big show for good. You can bet the Wild brass are praying this stint in Portland will only serve to speed up the process.

 

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