There was a time when it seemed like Maatta’s future in Pittsburgh was as bright as a fresh sheet of ice.
After an impressive start to his career during the 2013-2014 season, playing 78 games as a 19-year-old rookie, Maatta would ascend the ranks, taking his rightful place on the blue line as Kris Letang’s defensive partner. Maatta would inherit Paul Martin’s spot, and the Penguins wouldn’t have to worry about their top defensive pair for the better part of a decade.
How high was the ceiling for a player who had shown so much potential?
What more could anyone want?
But now in Maatta’s fourth professional season, it's clear that things haven’t gone exactly to script, especially considering the injuries, illnesses, and all-around bad luck that have impacted Maatta’s life and development. Despite these setbacks, it seems fair to suggest that not only do we know where Maatta’s ceiling might be, but also that we have already seen it — we have likely seen him play the best hockey he is capable of. And while it remains possible that Maatta might regain the level of play he exhibited in his first few years, it seems unlikely at this point that he would much surpass those levels.
In the short term, the best thing the Penguins could do for Maatta would be to ensure that he doesn’t see another shift with Trevor Daley. Daley, who is himself struggling to regain the level of play the Penguins came to expect from him last year, has been a defensive nightmare with Maatta. In over 300 minutes together this season, Maatta and his most common partner have a 45.6% corsi-for percentage (CF%) and have managed a corsi-against per 60 (CA60) of 65.21. To put that in perspective, when the Maatta-Daley pairing is on the ice together this season, the Penguins are giving up nearly 14 corsi attempts more per 60 minutes than they did with Maatta on the ice last season.
A better plan might be to reunite Maatta and Letang, at least until Brian Dumoulin returns from his jaw injury. Although the Letang-Maatta pairing hasn’t been as good together this year as they have been in previous years, their fairly substantial body of work together — over his career, Maatta has seen more ice time with Letang than any other defenseman — suggests that playing Maatta with Letang puts Maatta in a solid position to bounce back and regain his form. Evaluating every season that Maatta and Letang have been paired with one another, we find that the duo put up their best defensive numbers last year, indicating that regaining success isn’t entirely out of reach.
For now, Maatta can be successful — it’s just probably not possible with Trevor Daley (or Steve Oleksy, for that matter).
With that in mind, when considering what to do with Maatta in a more long-term sense, the Penguins have a few things to untangle from each other:
(1) How much of Maatta’s reputation as a young, high-end defensive prospect has he retained, thus perhaps inflating his value on the trade market?
(2) To the degree that future performance can be predicted, what is the likelihood that Maatta regains and sustains the highest levels of play the Penguins have seen from him?
(3) To what degree is the promise that Maatta once held impacting the team’s own evaluation of his future performance?
(4) When considering the price teams are willing to pay for Maatta, is his play worth more to the Penguins than any return they could possibly get?
The Penguins won’t be forced to trade high-end defensive prospects. There’s no mandate that says that young, cost-controlled players must be moved near the deadline for older ones, or that the Penguins must decide that they no longer require the services that Maatta and/or Derrick Pouliot offer. But if the Penguins are looking for blue line help — something they might consider doing given the team-wide struggle with shot suppression this season — and if they are looking to trade one of Maatta or Pouliot to get it, careful consideration of Pouliot’s stats might suggest that he is a better bet for the Penguins to make long-term, despite persistent narratives that have emerged around both players that suggest the opposite.
If the Penguins must make a move, then they should try to exploit an over-valuation of Maatta’s worth (to the degree that any such perception exists), as this would well position the Penguins to bring back a solid return at the trade deadline.