Olli Maatta’s offensive surge in playoffs could complicate Blackhawks’ buyout situation
Maatta looked like a very likely candidate for a contract buyout this offseason, but his playoff breakout makes things less certain.
Defenseman Olli Maatta insists he hasn’t approached the Blackhawks’ playoff games any differently than he approached their regular-season games.
But something clearly has changed.
In a strange twist believable only because of all the other weirdness of this postseason, Maatta entered Game 5 of the Hawks’ series Tuesday against the Golden Knights as their fourth-leading scorer of the playoffs. He trailed only Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik, the team’s three biggest offensive weapons.
Maatta had six points — three goals and three assists — in the Hawks’ first eight playoff games. He scored their lone goal in Game 3 against the Knights, then created their first goal in Game 4 with a no-look centering pass to wing Drake Caggiula.
He also led the Hawks in scoring-chance and shots-on-goal ratios during his time on the ice.
‘‘I think I play the game the same way,’’ Maatta said before Game 5. ‘‘I’m obviously all the time just looking for spots to jump in there, help the forwards going into the offense. That’s got to be part of today’s D-man’s game. You’ve got to look for those chances when you get them.’’
He then credited the rest of his teammates for making good plays, as hockey players seem programmed to do.
The heavy involvement of the Hawks’ defensemen in the offensive zone has been a noticeable and encouraging development this postseason, but Maatta has been the most involved among the defensemen. And on a roster that features Duncan Keith and Adam Boqvist, even that is weird.
Watching Maatta’s out-of-the-blue emergence as a critical offensive playmaker has been particularly disconcerting because of how little he did offensively during the regular season.
Maatta had only 17 points (four goals, 13 assists) in 65 regular-season games. He also had scored only 21 points (two goals, 19 assists) in 69 postseason games with the Penguins.
But he did take on a bigger role late in the regular season, once he and Slater Koekkoek developed some chemistry and became an unexpectedly solid third pairing for the Hawks’ generally porous defensive corps. Coach Jeremy Colliton has praised that pairing constantly and did so again Tuesday.
‘‘They do so many little things that help them have success: communication and holding up and boxing out defensively, gap [control],’’ Colliton said. ‘‘That allows them and the guys they’re on the ice with to play with the puck, be in the offensive zone. And when you do that, there’s a chance to chip in offensively.’’
Koekkoek will be a restricted free agent this offseason, so his improvement might help him earn another low-cost, one-year extension, like he did last year.
Maatta’s contract situation is more complex. He technically has two years left at a $4.1 million cap hit, but he has looked like a prime offseason buyout candidate for three reasons: The Hawks will be crunched by the cap staying flat for next season; Ian Mitchell, Wyatt Kalynuk and Lucas Carlsson (all of whom are on cheap, entry-level contracts) will be pushing for jobs on defense; and Maatta’s contract is buyout-friendly.
Buying out Maatta would cost the Hawks only $680,000 each of the next four seasons, saving them a $3.4 million chunk of cap space each of the next two seasons.
Looking ahead to the delayed offseason earlier this summer, that decision seemed close to a no-brainer for general manager Stan Bowman. Now, however, Maatta’s sudden emergence as a relied-on veteran might complicate matters.