Olli Maatta, center, celebrates his first NHL career goal with teammates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz Oct. 19. Maatta will stay in the NHL instead of returning to his junior team in London, Ontario.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pregame jitters are widespread in the NHL, especially among rookies. But 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta had something of a reversal earlier this week.
"After Monday's game, I was more nervous than I was before the game," the Penguins rookie recalled Thursday.
That's because the 1-0 loss Monday against Colorado marked his ninth game this season, ninth in the NHL. He knew the Penguins had to decide before the home game tonight against the New York Islanders whether to return him to his junior team in London, Ontario, or keep him and activate his entry-level contract.
Before practice Thursday at Southpointe, general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma summoned Maatta. He walked out of that meeting and went straight for his phone to relay the outcome to family and friends in his native Finland.
He was staying.
"It feels awesome. I'm really excited. It's always been my dream to play in the NHL, and now it's happening."
Maatta absorbed the news from Shero and Bylsma in the same manner with which he has conducted himself since he reported for training camp in September.
"Olli hasn't said a whole lot," Bylsma said. "He's nodded and said a few words.
"When we told Olli he was going to be here [tonight] and be here through the 10th game, he didn't say a lot, either, but his reaction was clearly that that was probably better than playing his next game in London."
Maatta, 6 feet 2 and 206 pounds, has a goal and two assists in his first nine NHL games. Moreover, he has played with poise and confidence beyond his years.
"I think he's getting more comfortable," said center and captain Sidney Crosby, who was 18 when he broke into the league.
"He is very quiet. I don't think that's just because he's  and in the NHL. I think he's just probably quiet in general. What he's done has shown a pretty mature game for how old he is. It's been fun to see him get better with each game and get more comfortable
"He's been really professional. You can tell he's committed off the ice. He's really done everything he's had to to give himself a chance to stay."
The Penguins can still return Maatta to his junior club, and they might revisit his situation at midseason because if he plays beyond Game 40, his free-agency clock will be affected. Maatta could then be eligible for free agency at age 25.
But that would be at least two or three contracts into his career. His entry-level contract is for three years and carries an annual salary cap hit of $894,167.
Veteran defenseman Paul Martin sees the Penguins' choice to keep Maatta as a deserved reward.
"When you make a decision to keep a junior kid, only 19 years old, that's showing a lot of confidence in him," Martin said. "I think he's played extremely well -- his poise as a 19-year-old and his confidence as far as his hockey sense. He doesn't make it hard on himself. He makes the right play, the smart play. He knows where to be positionally."
The Penguins aren't the only ones noticing.
Winger Jussi Jokinen, who has taken the younger Finn under his wing, believes Maatta is on Finland's radar for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
"I've been talking a little bit to one of the people in management. Obviously, they are scouting ... our players who are playing [in North America]," Jokinen said. "I think they've seen it already. He's already playing in the NHL. He's made the team here. He's pretty much a lock to make the Olympic team."
These are big steps for a teenager who was a first-round draft choice in 2012 and was playing junior hockey a few months ago and just graduated from high school in January after juggling junior hockey and school.
Maatta capitalized on several chances to sway the Penguins. He attended their development camp in July and played for them in a rookie tournament in London. He then met with Penguins management at the start of training camp.
"We sat down and talked about it." Maatta said. "[They said], 'You've got a chance to make the team. You've got to do your best. Do your best every day and you might have a chance.'
"Every game, I got more comfortable, more confident that I can play at this level."
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