The answer to the question of how – or even if – Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta would be deployed when he recovered from a shoulder injury has been swirling as Maatta nears full recovery.
There might have been a glimpse the answer Thursday, and it might not be what you expected.
In practice at PPG Paints Arena, Maatta, a left-handed shot, worked on that side on the top line opposite Brian Dumoulin, who moved to the right side – Dumoulin’s off side.
That would be a somewhat surprising pairing if Maatta returns Friday when Nashville visits – coach Mike Sullivan said he expects Maatta to be a game-time decision.
The team has been pleased with its pairings while Maatta missed 21 games, and those pairings have featured defensemen on their strong side based on left-righty.
It turns out Maatta apparently also was surprised to be paired with Dumoulin, with Dumoulin moving over.
“I think it might be my first time playing with him,” Maatta said. “I’m not 100 percent on that, but it’s what I remember. It was fun, though.”
Dumoulin normally is paired with right-handed shot Kris Letang, who has a suspected neck injury and still is not skating.
Even without experience playing together, Maatta said it was comfortable with Dumoulin in practice.
“We both trust each other to do the right thing,” Maatta said. “That’s a big thing, just being on the same page. It comes down to, when we get out there, just communicate, talking a lot. It just helps so much.
“Just try to tell your partner all the time where you are, where’s the other guy at, what his options are. It’s not easy, for example, going back for a puck when you your back (turned). It’s not easy to see those plays, so your partner comes in really handy there.”
Not surprisingly, Sullivan would not commit to using a Maatta-Dumoulin pairing, to using Dumoulin on the right side, breaking up the setup of having one righty and one lefty on each pair – or anything else about his defensive lineup.
“We have liked the righty-lefty combinations that we’ve had,” Sullivan said. “We think that’s been beneficial for all of us as a group, and for obvious reasons – when you’re under pressure more of often than not you’re on your forehand when you’re playing on your strong side. Most guys are better on their forehand than they are on their backhand.”
Most recently, Zach Trotman has been filling in for Letang with Dumoulin. Trotman is a righty, but he is not necessarily considered one of the top six or seven defensemen in the organization. Maatta is, but re-inserting him in the lineup throws off the righty-left balance.
There has been quite a bit of speculation over what the Penguins would or should do with their pairings when Maatta returned. That included leaving him out of the lineup until or unless someone else gets hurt, and having him displace Marcus Pettersson or Jack Johnson, both lefties.
Moving Dumoulin to the right side hasn’t been a widely chronicled choice.
“If we choose to use (Dumoulin) there, it’s because we believe he’s capable of doing the job,” Sullivan said. “He’s a mobile guy. He’s a good player. He has good puck skills. He has some familiarity with playing the right side.
“We’ve explored other guys playing the right side all year long out of necessity until we got some right-handed shots (in the lineup).”
Here is Maatta’s take:
Overall, Maatta said he got a lot out of the practice Thursday.
“I think it was the first practice in a while I got that was really intense,” he said. “I felt good.”
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Sullivan said that, in general, the Penguins’ injured players are making “significant progress.”
Center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel skated before practice.
Winger Zach Aston-Reese also didn’t skate, and has not, but is “trending in the right direction,” Sullivan said.