Olli Maatta is ready to return from his upper-body injury suffered in mid-February. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said he is hopeful Maatta can return, Friday. But it may not be that simple. And certainly not fair to Marcus Pettersson who has played well and is adding offensive layers to his game.
Maatta was a top-four staple this season before missing the last six weeks. Ordinarily, when a top-four defenseman is ready to go, being reinserted into the lineup wouldn’t be a question.
But the Penguins have had an extraordinary six weeks.
The Penguins are 14-4-4 in their last 22 games. They could be–and probably should be–18-4-0 in those games. They acquired Erik Gudbranson from the Vancouver Canucks, who promptly changed the dynamic with Tom Wilson in the Penguins last meeting with the Washington Capitals.
Most notably, the Penguins realized how important the righty-lefty split is despite lip-service eschewing it for most of the season. More specifically, Jack Johnson on his left side provides a complete game with physicality, puck movement, and defensive zone presence on the left side. Johnson occasionally activates more competently on the left side, too.
And Zach Trotman on the right side in Kris Letang’s absence has provided the Penguins with a steady pairing and puck movement. As a whole, the Penguins puck movement from the blue line crew has been worlds better since everyone got to their natural side.
Perhaps you read head coach Mike Sullivan’s response yesterday in the same way I do:
“I think the decision we have to make is what are the best pairs that complement the group,” Sullivan said. “We’ve liked some of the pairs that we’ve had together since we’ve acquired some players. For example, we’ve liked Marcus (Pettersson) and (Erik Gudbranson) together. They’ve been a very good tandem for us.”
On the Penguins Live Chats, I often talk about playing “Mike Sullivan poker.” He occasionally telegraphs his moves by declining to answer the question. Call it a non-answer answer.
“Based on the health of our defense corps, we’re going to have to make decisions as a coaching staff that we think is best for the overall group. Part of that is trying to figure out what those pairs look like, and Olli is one of those guys,” Sullivan concluded.
Did Sullivan say Maatta was one of the six or just one of the guys under consideration? That one has me guessing, too.
This has been the best Penguins defense since 2016, and this group is far more physical but less offensively inclined. Sullivan must surely be tempted to leave well enough alone. Is Maatta that much of a difference maker? Maatta should be the odd-man out until needed.
However, the bet here is that Maatta displaces Marcus Pettersson but skates beside Schultz and Johnson will slide to the third pairing with Gudbranson to form a fearsome pairing.
Sorry, Marcus Pettersson. Life isn’t fair.
Maatta, 24, has seen high points but also low points this season. When Maatta is fresh and rested, he has been very good; his legs move well, he moves the puck well. When Maatta is healthy and fresh, he looks significantly faster. However, Maatta has also looked worn down at times; tired and slow.
I’ve spoken with trusted colleagues and hockey folks on Maatta. There was agreement that Maatta has been quick to wear down but was very good when fresh.
It is hard to imagine the Penguins breaking up Pettersson and Gudbranson pairing but the alternative would be to send Johnson to the press box which seems even more unlikely. Johnson has been the Penguins best penalty killer, most physical and a goalie friend by clearing the crease.
Maatta is more talented than Pettersson, probably, but Pettersson seems to be getting more aggressive lately, too. He’s activated and stepped into shots from the blue line. He has added dimension and that should not go unnoticed.
The Penguins will try to fit Maatta back into the lineup and get him to full speed before the playoffs. The chance to see a physically imposing third pairing with Johnson and Gudbranson is quite intriguing. The Penguins in their AM (after-Mario) life probably haven’t had a pairing like that, ever.
Maatta and Schultz were very good together during the Cup run of 2017, too. So, worst case scenario, the Penguins have a great fallback. Their current pairings have been rock solid. For fans and the team, hopefully ignoring the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” won’t bite them.
After all, it’s been at least a week since Penguins fans took to their keyboard pitchforks over something. Maatta’s inclusion in the lineup Friday will rescue us all from the dreary Twitter boredom. Even if it is not fair to Marcus Pettersson.