Is Olli Maatta qualified to be part of the Penguins' defense corps when they open the regular season Oct. 3 against New Jersey?
Is he actually going to be in their lineup that game?
The Penguins have too many capable, veteran bodies on their blue line for even top-shelf prospects such as Derrick Pouliot and Maatta to be favorites to start the season in the NHL.
Scott Harrington, another of the Penguins' good young defensemen, already has been assigned to their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.
Pouliot and Maatta, meanwhile, seem likely to rejoin their junior teams in Portland and London, respectively, in the fairly near future.
Pouliot, claimed by the Penguins with the No. 8 choice in the 2012 draft, has had flashes of brilliance, along with some jarring breakdowns, in training camp.
Maatta hasn't had many spectacular bursts, but neither has he suffered many glaring lapses, although he was guilty of a potentially costly turnover in the third period of the Penguins' 3-2 preseason shootout victory against Chicago Monday night at Consol Energy Center.
Overall, however, Maatta has been consistent, reliable and responsible, three pretty impressive qualities for a player at his position. Especially one who just turned 19 a month ago.
"For a young player, his maturity is clear, both on and off the ice, how he carries himself," said Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works with the defensemen.
"His build [6 feet 2, 202 pounds], his body is NHL-ready. His [attention to] details, for a young guy, in the game -- whether it's going back for puck retrievals or, most important, his defensive details and [defensive] zone coverages -- are really good. He thinks the game at a high level, as well."
Still, unless there is epic upheaval on the Penguins' defense corps in the immediate future, Maatta figures to return to the Ontario Hockey League for the coming season.
That's because an agreement between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the three major junior leagues that are the primary feeder system for the NHL, mandates that players who don't stick with an NHL club must return to their junior team if they have eligibility remaining, unless they will be 20 before Dec. 31.
Maatta, taken 22nd overall by the Penguins in 2012, has played just two seasons in the OHL and won't be 20 until Aug. 22, 2014.
Even though the London Knights have one of the top programs in junior hockey -- "I like the teaching they do there," Reirden said -- the Penguins undoubtedly would have preferred Maatta be allowed to compete for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
The quality of competition is higher in the American Hockey League, so Maatta would be tested more frequently and severely than he figures to be in the OHL.
That means there would be less danger of him picking up bad habits rooted in being clearly more accomplished than most of the guys against whom he will compete in the OHL.
Then again, seeing how well he resists the temptation to cut corners, even when he could get away with it, might give the Penguins even more insight into just how far along he is.
"I just have to be ready to play the style I learned here and do good habits there, every game and every practice," Maatta said. "It's all about myself and what I do.
"It doesn't matter what league I play in. I still have to get better every day. It's all in my head. I have to think of doing those [good] habits, getting better, stronger."
Maatta clearly respects the upgraded caliber of competition he has faced in the NHL -- "It's better, of course," he said -- but isn't fazed by it. That was evidenced by how quickly he got acclimated in his preseason debut Sept. 25 against Detroit.
"In the beginning of the game, he was a little tentative, because it was his first exhibition game at the National Hockey League level," Reirden said. "By the end of it, he was a really solid, two-way guy."
Which the Penguins expect him to be for a long time, regardless of when his NHL career begins.
"He's a player who's gotten better every day," Reirden said. "He's very coachable, a hard worker. He certainly has a bright future."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG First Published September 24, 2013 4:00 AM