Following on a rumor reported last week by Scott Powers of The Athletic—that had the Blackhawks in discussion with Columbus about trading for the rights to defenseman Ryan Murray, yesterday Hawk GM Stan Bowman did acquire a young left-side defenseman with significant NHL experience in Olli Maatta.
First, if you’ve listened to our RinkCasts for the last few months, you’ve heard a recurring theme: Bowman should explore the trade market in order to meaningfully shore up arguably the league’s worst blue line with an experienced, yet young, defense-minded blue liner. We threw out names like Josh Manson and Adam Larsson on the higher (and therefore unlikely) end, and more realistically, say, Jordie Benn or similar.
So, Bowman did that. Arguably. And kudos to him for it.
At just 24, Finnish defender Maatta comes to Chicago with two Stanley Cup rings, appearing in 69 playoff games in 6 seasons. He was +61 in the regular season over that span. He is a two-way defenseman who is more defense-minded. He has good size but is not overly physical, preferring to rely more on positioning and stick work to turn over pucks, which he is good at. He also kills penalties and block shots and can play on the second power play unit. Maatta is not fast and can be beaten outside, but when he’s on his game, he compensates for that with positioning.
A decent comparable might be another former Penguin and Blackhawk defenseman (who most Hawk fans will only remember from the very end of his career): Michal Rozsival. A useful depth defender who can play some minutes and fill roles in a lot of situations. No, Rozsival never made anyone forget Bobby Orr, but he helped the Hawks win a lot of big games over a few years as a depth piece, used in the right manner.
Yes, Maatta comes with a smallish warning label: he’s had some freakish injuries including a bout with cancer 4 seasons ago. He also missed basically the last 6 weeks of this past regular season with a shoulder injury. After he returned to the Penguins’ lineup, he struggled in the team’s first round loss to the Islanders.
This, from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review‘s Kevin Gorman, provides a pretty straightforward assessment of what was a bad performance—for which Maatta took responsibility.
We don’t know nearly enough to say that Maatta is now damaged goods. More likely, he had a bad couple of games—as all defensemen can now and then—coming back off a lengthy absence in a playoff game where his entire team was outplayed.
To the counterpoint, this piece from RJ Naugle at pensburgh.com provides a very nuanced, robust and positive breakdown of Maatta’s 2017-18 season, where his metrics were very solid for a 4-5 defenseman on a very good overall blue line corps (much better, for example, than Chicago’s).
In the end, we have to assume the Blackhawks did due diligence in scouting where Maatta is actually at, before pulling the trigger on this deal. He adds about $3 million a year to the Hawk payroll (after subtracting Dominik Kahun’s money) at $4.1 million a year through 2021-22.
Otherwise, his overall body of work suggests he is basically a solid 4-5 NHL defenseman with the statistical evidence to prove it—and the kind of defenseman the Hawks need as a depth piece. More importantly, he fills a need on the Hawk defense this coming season: helping solidify a Chinese Fire Drill defense that was terrible in its own end—when its defenders could even make it back to their zone to actually defend, before the puck found the back of the net.
He can be a part of the depth picture going forward, where the better Blackhawk defense prospects (Henri Jokiharju, Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell) all play the right side. He may also be a positive mentoring influence on fellow Finn Jokiharju.
Everyone liked Dominik Kahun, the player given up in the deal by the Hawks. Not coincidentally, Kahun is sort of loosely the “forward analog” for Maatta: a reasonably effective player you can slot up and down your lineup in various situations. In other words, this is more of a value for value trade, with two big differences being the addition Maatta’s salary and his bigger, more accomplished resume’.
This is a Hawk team with glaring needs at defense, center, and perhaps goalie (depending on Corey Crawford’s ongoing injury status). But they had some decent depth at forward, especially with the recent acquisitions of Drake Caggiula and Dominik Kubalik, and could afford to move Kahun to backfill needs on defense.
Internet reaction to this deal makes it seem that the Hawks got fleeced, but one has to wonder how many of those respondents saw how dreadfully poor the Hawk defense was, game by game, over the last couple of seasons—especially from a purely defensive standpoint. And while there are some intriguing defensive prospects in the Hawk pipeline, not one is a player you would call strong in his own end, a willing shot blocker, etc.
As with all trades, time will tell on this one, but overall, the Hawks at least partially filled a need—as hard as it may be for some to see it—by adding an experienced, yet still young, more defensive defenseman.