By Matt Popchock

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Even with defenseman Kris Letang making further progress, as head coach Dan Bylsma noted after Tuesday’s morning skate, the Penguins still have to make an important decision about their blue line.

They have less than one week to determine if rookie Olli Maatta is good enough to remain a part of it. Though the 19-year-old Finnish product of the OHL’s London Knights has played mostly on a third pairing with Robert Bortuzzo, Sean Griffin of The Hockey Writers does not believe the decision whether or not to send Maatta back to juniors should be a tough one at this point.

“A closer look at what appears to be a formidable defensive unit reveals a group that is growing a bit long in the tooth.  Of the club’s top-four blue liners, only Letang (26) still finds himself under the age of 30. With all the talent in the Penguins’ system, logic dictates that it’s only a matter of time before we witness a changing of the guard on the Pittsburgh blue line,” Griffin says. “And, if that is indeed the case, wouldn’t it make sense to provide Maatta with some valuable experience while he still has an opportunity to learn from such a veteran presence?”

Click here to read the full post by Griffin, who talks about how the youngster is drawing favorable comparisons to former Penguin Sergei Gonchar.

Maatta, the 22nd overall pick of last year’s entry draft, registered his first two career points setting up two goals in a 5-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes one week ago, and holds an even plus-minus rating after five games.

“The signals right now are that he can play at this level.  At this point, it’s easy to make the statement that he belongs…He was real solid in his first game. Very good in his second game, and even better in his last game,” Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden told the blog. “You could say he’s headed in the right direction.”

The Pens, as a team, winners of four of their first five, are headed in the right direction despite the ongoing absence of their All-Star and Norris Trophy finalist on the back end. In those games, Maatta has been the sort of player who goes relatively unnoticed for the right reasons, playing his position and not doing anything glaring to jeopardize his team.

So although a more difficult roster move would accompany a decision by the organization to keep Maatta once the Pens are healthy, that doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did.

Judging by this morning’s line rushes, it appears Maatta and Bortuzzo will play together yet again when the struggling Edmonton Oilers make a rare visit to CONSOL Energy Center at 7:00 tonight on ROOT Sports.


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