The New Jersey Devils need to improve their blue line this offseason, specifically adding a top-four defenseman. Jake Gardiner would be a significant addition, but he won’t come cheap. Aside from he and Erik Karlsson, the free agent class lacks anyone who would give the Devils a significant improvement.
That means general manager Ray Shero may have to look to the trade market. One name who could be of interest is Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman, Olli Maatta, who’s 13th on TSN’s Trade Bait list. Maatta finished with 14 points in 63 games this season and was a first-round pick of Shero’s in 2012 when he was the Penguins’ GM. Could a reunion be in the cards?
What to Make of Maatta
Maatta had a great start to his career with the Penguins. He had 29 points in 78 games as a rookie in 2013-14 and finished fifth in the Calder Trophy race. However, he had a difficult second season, which included having a procedure to remove a tumor that could’ve been a low-grade form of thyroid cancer in Nov. 2014. He returned just two weeks after the procedure, but a shoulder injury suffered in Dec. 2014 ended his season.
Health has been a problem for Maatta since his rookie season. He’s only played a full 82 games once in his career, in 2017-18, and even though injuries have stifled him, he has performed well. Since the start of 2016-17, his expected goals for percentage (xGF%) is 51.93 percent, and the Penguins have controlled most of the scoring and high-danger chances with him on the ice.
Maatta’s goals above replacement (GAR), which shows how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player, over the last three seasons is pretty impressive, too. Since the start of 2016, he has a GAR of 23.5, ranked 32nd among defensemen, the same as P.K. Subban and better than T.J. Brodie. His GAR of 12.5 in 2018-19 alone would rank first among Devils defensemen.
I’m not saying Maatta is better than Will Butcher or Damon Severson. Nor does it mean I’d take him over Subban or Brodie, but it does show he can play in a top-four role. If you’re still skeptical, here’s how he compares to one of the Devils’ best defensemen, Sami Vatanen.
RAPM charts are pretty easy to understand at face value. They measure a player’s impact, independent of both his teammates and opponents (via Blueshirts Breakaway). In comparison to Vatanen, Maatta fares pretty well. The light purple indicates he has a better impact on creating shot attempts (Off_CF) and expected goals (Off_xG) than Vatanen. He also has a significant advantage in preventing expected goals (Def_xG) over Vatanen. Overall, the good outweighs the bad.
Pros and Cons of Acquiring Maatta
There are a few positives to acquiring Maatta. He’s only 24 years old and is signed for three more seasons at a reasonable cap hit of $4.083 million. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Vatanen are all due for extensions within in the next year. Given that the Devils could have around $36 million in cap space if the salary cap rises to $83 million, fitting in Maatta’s deal shouldn’t be a problem.
Maatta also fills a couple of Devils’ needs. They lack a left-handed shot who can play top-four minutes other than Butcher. Top prospect Ty Smith will be able to one day, but it’d be a lot to ask of a 19-year-old. Maatta also has good size at 6-foot-2, 206 pounds, which the Devils need on their back end as Severson is the only top-four defenseman above 6-foot.
The biggest concern with Maatta is his injury history. If he gets hurt, the Devils could be in some trouble because they don’t have a ton of depth as it is. That’d put pressure on Smith or Jeremy Davies, another one of their top prospects on defense, to fill his role. It also doesn’t help Maatta’s best season came as a rookie in 2013-14, so can he reach those heights again?
Is Maatta Worth the Risk?
Maatta wouldn’t be my first choice to upgrade the Devils’ blue line, but he is worth a look. If the Devils lose out on Karlsson and Gardiner in free agency — which is more likely than not — Maatta would be better than any of the remaining free agent options. And he won’t cost as much as Jacob Trouba or Subban would in a trade. His underlying numbers are in pretty good shape, so maybe that eases some concerns, especially since he’s still 24 years old. If Shero can acquire him without giving up his best assets, he might be worth the risk.
* * *