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Penguins confident Olli Maatta is ready for full-time NHL duty

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With the Pat LaFontaine/Ted Nolan takeover in Buffalo, the pair quickly established they were not going to let the organization’s teens drown in the suffering that was the Sabres’ season. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov was sent back to the London Knights of the Ontario League, while Rasmus Ristolainen was sent to American League’s Rochester Americans. As I noted on the blog two days ago, these were simple and smart moves. But the fly in the ointment was center Mikhail Grigorenko, who had to go back to junior because he was drafted out of the CHL and he was too young for the minors. Except his team, the Quebec Remparts, already filled his import slot.

So yesterday the Sabres tried to buy themselves some time by assigning Grigorenko to the AHL for a two-week “conditioning assignment,” which is a nice little loophole teams have used in the past with teenagers they’re not sure what to do with. The Los Angeles Kings did it with Brayden Schenn, for example, before returning him to junior. He was promptly traded from Brandon Wheat Kings to the Saskatoon Blades, as the Blades thought they might win the Western League that season and wanted to bulk up. They didn’t, but Schenn got to dominate at the world juniors for Canada and the next year he was a full-time NHLer, albeit with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Today, the NHL said nope, not falling for that one again: the conditioning assignment was rejected.

So Grigorenko is back with the Sabres, his immediate future muddy.

The Pittsburgh Penguins faced a similar dilemma with defenseman Olli Maatta this year, but they decided to go all-in and are reaping the rewards.

The reasons for sending Maatta back to OHL London were easy: The Knights are hosting the Memorial Cup this year, so Maatta was guaranteed to play in at least a few pressure-packed, character-building games and may have even won a CHL title. Plus, coach-GM brother tandem Dale and Mark Hunter (also owners of the team) have a fantastic reputation for developing talent. Maatta could have also helped Finland at the world juniors in Sweden over the holidays.

But the Penguins knew they had their man early on and told Maatta he’d be sticking around.

“This kid is not your typical 19-year-old,” said Penguins assistant to the GM Tom Fitzgerald. “He’s got ice in his veins; there’s no panic.”

Maatta wasn’t getting overmatched in the corners and he wasn’t getting star struck when he had to make a play up to Evgeni Malkin or any of the Penguins’ other stars. What most impressed Fitzgerald is how Maatta came into his first NHL camp, since last year’s edition was wiped out by the lockout.

“Olli, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot – they got screwed last year,” he said. “We knew what we had coming into camp and we knew the decision would be hard.”

And while Pouliot is back with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks and Dumoulin is in the AHL, Maatta’s strength, maturity and poise with the puck kept him up with the big club. Not only that, but the Penguins are comfortable enough with him that they are willing to see him forego a third straight Memorial Cup appearance (London did not win the previous two).

“We see him as a viable player in the NHL playoffs,” Fitzgerald said. “Does he make us a better team? The answer is ‘yes.’ ”

While Grigorenko has played more than 15 minutes in a game just once this season (a win over lowly Florida), Maatta has been given and earned steady minutes with the Pens. He’s averaging more than 15 minutes per contest, but has played even more recently.

Ironically, Buffalo’s Zadorov will play for that Memorial Cup and with German blueliner Tim Bender replacing Maatta, the Knights are at their import limit as well. But that’s of no concern to the Penguins; they’ve got their kid and they’re hanging on to him.

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