Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest issue that general manager Stan Bowman needed to address this summer was the defense. The Chicago Blackhawks were just brutal when it came to defending during the 2018-19 season.
They finished the year giving up 3.55 goals per game and 291 total goals. The only team in the entire National Hockey League do worse was the Ottawa Senators. 185 of those goals allowed were at 5v5, tied for the fifth-most in the NHL. They also allowed 34.8 shots per game, the second-most behind only the Senators again.
Trade Market Provides a Proven Commodity
Instead of overpaying for a free agent defenseman like Tyler Myers or Jake Gardiner, Bowman decided to strengthen his blue line with a couple of trades. The first deal was made on June 15 when he acquired Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Dominik Kahun and a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Kahun was a very nice addition to the Blackhawks lineup last season, but the acquisition of Dominik Kubalik will hopefully fill the void he leaves behind.
Maatta will bring plenty of experience to the Blackhawks defensive corps despite being just 24-years-old. The former first-round draft pick has already played in 362 games for the Penguins, scoring 25 goals and 107 points while being a career plus-61. He has also played in 69 playoff games and has helped the Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.
After a successful junior career in the Ontario Hockey League, Maatta made the Penguins opening night roster for the 2013-14 season. A rash of injuries to the blue line shot him up the Pittsburgh depth chart, leading him to play more minutes as the season wore on.
Three weeks after he picked up three assists on the opening night of the 2014-15 season, Maatta announced that he would undergo surgery to remove a tumor from his neck. Just two weeks after the surgery, Maatta returned to the ice. He ended up suffering a shoulder injury, three weeks later, that caused him to miss the remainder of the season.
One of Maatta’s biggest problems over the years has been staying on the ice. He missed nearly a month of the 2015-16 season after being checked from behind, into the bench, by Nino Niederreiter, then a member of the Minnesota Wild. An illegal check to the head from Brooks Orpik of the Washington Capitals cost him a few games during the Penguins run to the 2016 Stanley Cup. A broken hand caused him to miss 24 games during the 2016-17 season. He played in all 82 games of the 2017-18 season, tying a career-high with 29 points.
It’s Defense First for Maatta
While some may have thought Maatta to be an offensive defenseman early in his career, he has definitely evolved into a stay-at-home defender, which is what the Blackhawks are in need of. All you have to do to see this is look at his zone starts over the past two seasons. In 2017-18, Maatta started 55.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone. Last season, he made a dramatic change by starting 57.1% of his shifts in his own end of the ice. This was the first time in his career where he started the majority of his shifts in the defensive end.
Maatta’s biggest weakness is his skating ability. Speed is not something that he possesses, which is a problem in today’s NHL. This probably was a contributing factor in why he started so many shifts in his own end last season. He will lose many more foot races than he wins, but if he is used correctly, he will succeed in the defensive zone.
He has become a bigger physical presence over the years as he has dished out more hits over the past two seasons than he did in his first four seasons combined. Shot blocking is one of the strongest points of Maatta’s game. He blocked 116 shots in just 60 games last season, which would have been the second-most on the 2018-19 Blackhawks.
Maatta was also a key member of the Penguins penalty kill last season, averaging over two minutes a game playing shorthanded. He will be able to spell both Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook a bit on special teams to help preserve their legs over the course of the long season.
Whatever Maatta can contribute on the penalty kill will be welcomed. The Blackhawks were the worst shorthanded team in the NHL last season, killing off just 72.7% of their penalties while giving up 63 goals. The Penguins gave up 45 goals on the penalty kill last season, which was right about the league average. However, Maatta was on the ice for just 11 of those goals against.
“The penalty kill was something that struggled for the Blackhawks this year. To me, it was a little bit of that desperation and that contagious attitude of guys flying out, blocking shots and getting in the way,” Blackhawks analyst Adam Burish said of Maatta. “Olli Maatta’s done that for six years in the NHL.”
One more plus to his game is his discipline. He only took six penalties last season and has had over 20 penalties minutes in a season twice during his six years in the league. If he is going to become one of your key penalty killers, it is good to know he won’t be spending much time in the box.
Bowman is Confident in What Maatta Brings
The acquisition of Maatta grew mixed reviews from the fan base on social media. However, Bowman was very excited about the move.
“There are a lot of things to like about Olli Maatta,” Bowman said shortly after the deal was done. “Certainly, his strength in the last few seasons has been his ability to be a good, reliable defender. He’s got good size – not necessarily is he a bruising defenseman – but I like the fact that he’s got an active stick. He’s good at using his body to shield in front of the net and I think he’s shown the ability to be used in several different situations over the past few years in Pittsburgh.
“I just like his all-around game. (He has) instincts with the puck, he finds the open man, he moves it quick (and) moves it up to the forwards. The biggest thing is his ability to play a sound defensive game. That’s one aspect that we weren’t strong in last year and I think he’s going to give us that ability to match up against players.”
Maatta is not a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman, but he is solid in his own end despite his lack of speed. The bottom line is he makes the Blackhawks defense better than they were last season. Granted, that is a pretty low bar, but they are an improved team with Maatta in the lineup.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.