Blackhawks Address Their Defense with Maatta Trade

The Chicago Blackhawks helped break the ice on the trade market this summer, acquiring defenseman Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins. The hope is he will in turn break the trend of two straight non-playoff seasons that has taken form in the Windy City. He’s a start at least, just not a starter in all likelihood.

Maatta Blocks Shots Aplenty

There are obviously no guarantees on that front, but by all appearances Maatta will at least help do the trick. He ranked third on the Penguins last year with 116 blocked shots, having played in just 60 games (first in blocks per game, with 1.9) due primarily to a shoulder injury.

Pittsburgh Penguins' Olli Maatta St. Louis Blues' Robert Thomas
Olli Maatta – (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

While that’s an impressive statistic, there are two caveats: Jack Johnson ranked first in total blocked shots and the Penguins are reportedly trying to offload his contract one season after signing him. Secondly, Maatta’s 60 games played were hardly an outlier in his career. Over the last five seasons, the 25-year-old Finn played more than 67 games a single time. Maatta’s shoulders specifically have been a recurring issue.

If Maatta is able to get past the lack of durability, he’s at the very least a young defenseman who has shown a capacity to get the puck out of his own zone and drive offense in the past. By all accounts, this past season, during which he was about as ineffective at so doing as Johnson (with just one more point and one ranking higher with regard to Shot-Attempts Percentage), was an anomaly. That has to be the hope for this trade to work out.

Maatta for Kahun

Otherwise, the Blackhawks will have just traded away a promising rookie in Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick for a defenseman who’s generally regarded as slow-footed. On the plus side, offense wasn’t the issue for the Blackhawks last season. They ranked eighth in the league in goals and likely won’t miss Kahun’s 13 (37 points) all that much.

Dominik Kahun
Ex-Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Dominik Kahun – (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

All in all, Kahun was an affordable price to pay to improve their defense. Just like the Penguins showed faith in Maatta with a six-year, $24.5 million extension (which now has three seasons left), the Blackhawks are doing the same now, thankfully with seemingly reasonable expectations. 

It’s critical to temper them among fans, as Maatta will likely never be the top-pairing defender many first envisioned following his rookie 29-point season in 2013-14. It seems to be something general manager Stan Bowman recognizes considering the relatively modest price he paid to get him and how both Maatta and Erik Gustafsson, the Blackhawks’ defensive leader in points with 60, are both left-handed shots. It’s not a perfect fit, in other words.

Where Will Maatta Play?

While Gustafsson did play with the left-handed Duncan Keith, the difference there is Keith has won the Norris Memorial Trophy twice. It’s unlikely head coach Jeremy Colliton would play both Gustafsson and Maatta together as the top pairing, at least regularly. After all, neither one has ever been “the” guy on their respective squads. No one should realistically hope either one can emerge as such for the Blackhawks if they were to play together.

As a result, it stands to reason the Blackhawks see Maatta as more of a second or third-pairing defenseman, which is probably an accurate assessment of his talent level: a decent top-four or an above-average bottom-pairing player. So, the search must keep up, because Gustafsson will still need help as Keith continues to decline as a 36-year-old. There is no escaping it.

Erik Gustafsson #56 of the Chicago Blackhawks
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Erik Gustafsson – (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Alone, Maatta isn’t the solution, but he can be part of it as the Blackhawks begin to fix their defense. Right-handed shots like Henri Jokiharju and top-prospect Adam Boqvist are probably in a better position to make more of an impact, but that just goes to show the Blackhawks are at least on their way. Maatta helps get them there quicker, albeit (hopefully) in little more than depth role.

In such an instance, the Blackhawks just gave up a little depth to get some in return. If that’s all the Blackhawks expect out of Maatta, and it’s a reasonable assumption they do, they won’t be disappointed. That seems to be the most realistic scenario here, with there being an outside chance that Maatta turns back the clock a bit and overperforms like he’s proven capable of in spurts in the past.

So, the best case? The Blackhawks committed highway robbery here. The likeliest case? They just got an above-average depth defenseman to boost their blue line and address their defensive issues, which is what they needed. As long as Maatta isn’t Bowman’s sole acquisition on the back-end, it’s a win either way, one that is likely to translate into more on the ice. Hopefully a return to the playoffs to boot.