Penguins defenseman Maatta getting rookie of year buzz

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The NHL has recognized each season’s top rookie since 1937. Defensemen have won it 11 times, and goalies have won it more often.

The past three Calder Trophy winners on defense were Buffalo’s Tyler Myers in 2009-10, St. Louis’ Barret Jackman in 2002-03 and the New York Islanders’ Bryan Berard in 1996-97.

Penguins rookie defenseman Olli Maatta was nearing his third birthday when Berard won. Maatta is 19 now, and, perhaps, worthy of Calder consideration.

“I don’t see why he shouldn’t be in the conversation,” said Matt Niskanen, often Maatta’s partner on defense this season.

“It’s understandable that the league is driven by offense, but Olli’s established himself already as a pretty high-end player. I would say as a first-year player, it’s much more demanding to be a good defenseman than it is to be a good forward, to have an impact and be consistent like he has.”

Going into the game tonight at Winnipeg, Maatta has played in 74 games. He has 29 points, second among the league’s rookie defensemen behind Boston’s Torey Krug, who had 37 points before a game Wednesday against Detroit — and the advantage of playing in three NHL regular-season games and 15 playoff games before this season, plus three years of college hockey. Krug turns 23 next week.

Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon, 18, seems to be the popular favorite for the Calder Trophy, but the Penguins have found Maatta to be invaluable, particularly in a season in which defensemen have frequently turned up on a stocked injury list.

Although internally Penguins management had been drooling over Maatta’s skating, positioning and poise, it was hardly a given when he arrived at training camp fresh out of junior hockey that he would earn a roster spot or that he would earn the chance to stay beyond the 10-game window after which his entry-level contract kicked in.

By the time Maatta approached the 40-game mark that would shorten the time until he is eligible for unrestricted free agency, he was so entrenched as a regular that the deadline passed with hardly any notice.

Finnish Olympic officials noticed him. Maatta had three goals, two assists in six games in Sochi to help Finland win the bronze medal in February.

“The way he’s been put in certain situations with our injuries, it’s a lot of responsibility, probably more than anyone thought he was going to get in his first year,” Penguins center and team captain Sidney Crosby said. “A long way from not being sure if he would play those 10 games or not. It’s pretty impressive.

“Playing in the Olympics and going through the things he’s gone through, I think he’s just gotten better and better. He’s constantly improved in whatever situation he’s been in.”

That extends to interviews. Maatta, whose English is strong, makes a point of standing when approached by reporters in the locker room and offers thorough, thoughtful comments.

It’s on the ice, though, where he has impressed the most, and not just with his nine goals, 20 assists.

He often plays on the point on the second power-play unit, ranks second among the Penguins defensemen with a plus-minus rating of plus-9, ranks second on the team with 112 blocked shots, has worked his way up to topping 20 minutes of ice time most nights and does not seem to get flustered by occasional mistakes or uncharted ground.

In his only game against the Jets, a 6-5 Penguins win Jan. 5 at home, he had an assist on Niskanen’s winning goal.

One thing Maatta hasn’t done is ask for a breather. The Penguins stepped in when they saw signs of mental and physical fatigue.

They made him a healthy scratch Dec. 31 for a game at New Jersey and for a game Friday at Columbus, the only two games he has missed.

“You don’t want to take games off, but I thought it was good for me,” Maatta said. “It’s a long season. It’s been a lot of games. It’s been a new situation for me. I haven’t played this many games [in a season] in my life. Yeah, for sure, it helped me.”

Instead of simply resting, Maatta used those games as a learning experience.

“Sometimes, when you watch a game from up top, you see different things that you wouldn’t see when you play a game,” he said. “You see that you actually have more time than you think you have. When you [watch], you see there are actually good plays you could make.”

Maatta’s 29 points rank fourth in team history among rookie defensemen. While leader Zarley Zalapski’s 45 points in 1988-89 would seem to be out of reach with six games remaining, and Ryan Whitney’s 38 points in 2005-06 would be tough to match, Maatta could move up. He is two points behind Doug Bodger, who had 31 points in 1984-85.

• NOTES — With one point tonight, the Penguins would clinch the Metropolitan Division title and secure no worse than a No. 2 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. … With a win, coach Dan Bylsma would become the fastest NHL coach to reach 250 wins, in 396 games. … The team opted for off-ice workouts, rather than a practice, Wednesday before traveling to Winnipeg. … Crosby, who leads the league in scoring, reached 100 points Tuesday with an assist, making him the eighth player in NHL history with five 100-point seasons before his 27th birthday, according to Elias Sports Bureau. … The Penguins signed forward Scott Wilson, a seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft, to a two-year, entry-level contract. At UMass-Lowell the past three seasons, Wilson had 38 points in successive seasons before injuries limited him to 19 points this season.

Shelly Anderson:, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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