Hockey

For going on damn near three years now, it’s been obvious to anyone with a brain that the Blackhawks have had lacked a lot on the blue line. We knew that good ol’ Duncan Keith would never be able to keep up his cowboy ways at the elite level he had played at before, and there seemed to be little to-no-help on the way. Last year the Hawks desperately lacked an effective puck mover on the backend who could also defend well. Going into the offseason, they needed to find someone who could shut down the opponent in the defensive zone. Who could, ideally, take away half the ice the way Keith used to, even if not quite as well. They needed someone who could do all that while also being able to get the puck out of the zone once he had it, either by skating or passing. And if they could get all of that in one guy, that’d be ideal.

So they traded for Olli Maatta, who can do none of that.

2018-19 Stats (w/ Penguins)

60 GP – 1 G, 13 A, 14 P

46.51 CF% (-4.42 CF% Rel), 43.36 oZS%

53.75 GF% (-0.08 GF% Rel), 51.53 xGF% (-0.27 xGF% Rel)

15:27 Avg. TOI

A Brief History: At one point Maatta was considered one of the better prospects in the NHL, but due to a series of injuries both on and off the ice, including an unfortunate battle with cancer, he never fully delivered on all the promise. Once considered someone with high offensive upside, especially after having 9 goals and 29 points in 78 games during his rookie season, Maatta has struggled to produce since and has never topped either of those numbers, though he did have 29 points again in 2017-18 when he played all 82 games for the only time in his career. Last year he failed to match that scoring pace and ended up going on IR with yet another injury in March, this one an upper-body injury after taking an uncomfortable hit. He missed all but 5 games from that point on.

Maatta has settled somewhat nicely into your typically “defensive defenseman” role, as despite missing 22 games last year, he finished third on the Penguins in blocked shots and hits. If that sentence sounded positive, it was not meant to. Basically what that means is that despite being a quarter of the season, Maatta spent so much fucking time in his own defensive zone that he had no choice but to throw his dumb body in front of pucks, likely because he was tired of skating around, because that isn’t exactly a strength of his. Blocking a lot of shots is good when you’re Niklas Hjalmarsson, who is good at both preventing shots and getting in front of them, but when you’re getting face-fucked by the opponents at a near-54% clip and 4% below your own team rate, blocking those shots is less impressive skill and more necessary duty.

It Was the Best of Times: Just staying healthy for the full 82 would be a best-case scenario for Maatta as an individual, because again, he’s only done that once. As a player and contributor to the Hawks, it would be ideal if he can return to his scoring pace from ’17-’18 and could end up somewhere in that 23-29 point range. Expecting more than that is foolhardy, but it’s not unrealistic to think he could do that. Moreover, it’d be nice if he cleans up his shit in the defensive zone and is able to fight above the 50% mark on shot attempts. If he can do all of that and be a steady presence on the back end, this could end up being a not-terrible acquisition. On the other hand….

It Was the BLURST of Times: If Maatta plays like he did last year – getting brained by the other team and playing well below team rate on shot attempts, and getting by-and-large lucky on the overall goal differential, while also providing little to nothing of note from a production standpoint, Maatta runs the risk of compounding the issues that ailed the Hawks’ blue line last year rather than offering himself as a solution. If that does end up being the case, him getting injured – which he probably will – would not be such a bad outcome, as bad is that is to say and as harsh as that sounds.

Prediction: Maatta deals with some minor injury stuff but nothing too major, and plays more than 65 but less than 75 games for the Hawks. He makes a modest improvement in the CF% but still finishes below team rate and probably leads the team in blocked shots, which will earn him praise even though it probably shouldn’t. He won’t get back to 2017-18 production but will score 5 goals and 15 points, which will be fine but not make much of a difference.

Stats from NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick.

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Let’s move on from the acid-reflux-inducing situation that is the Blackhawks goalies, and instead start pondering the black hole of the blue line, which saw notably pitiful changes from last season, despite the obvious need for more talent right now. After giving up 2,683 shots against, their worst number since 2013-2014 (when at least they made the Conference Finals), and finding new ways to plumb the depths of clumsiness and stupidity nearly every night, the Hawks defense was the glaring eyesore of the season. Duncan Keith wasn’t anywhere close to being the main offender in last year’s shit show, but for the defense to have any chance at rebounding this year they need him to improve. And for better or for worse, he will probably still be on the top pairing. So we start with him…

2017-18 Stats

82 GP – 2 G – 30 A

52.4 CF% – 60.5 oSZ%

Avg. TOI 23:50

A Brief History: It would be foolish to say that last year was anything other than a disappointment for Duncan Keith, and it’s not just because of the measly two goals. Yes that was all sorts of pathetic, but it’s not like he was scoring tons of goals in years prior and besides, it the defense that matters. No, the real problems were his lackluster numbers overall despite taking over 60% of his even-strength zone starts in the offensive zone, and the fact that he was basically dragging around a useless clod in Jordan Oesterle all season. These two things are connected and the latter is most certainly not Keith’s fault, but it’s concerning given the defensive roster this season.

With a 52.4 CF% (again, at evens), he wasn’t too off his historical average but—one more time for the cheap seats—this was following a decrease in defensive zone starts. So last year’s numbers don’t bode well, Also, Keith is slower and trending continually in that direction (he turned 35, and the ravages of age come for us all). It’s tough to watch sometimes because he still knows where he should be, but he just can’t get there. And oh yeah, who the fuck is he going to be paired with? Let’s consider the possibilities.

It Was the Best of Times: In the rosiest outcome (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) Keith and Murphy would click in the way I kept hoping they would last year, but never did. They only played a handful of games together last season and I’m convinced that Q’s irrational disdain for Murphy torpedoed what could have been a pairing of the smartest-yet-aging and best-yet-green defensemen. In this utopia Murphy could at least cover for Keith when he can’t make it to the corners or behind the net, and maybe taking the pressure off a little will allow Keith to get a few more assists or even goals. But most valuable would be extending the abilities Keith still has by not running him into the ground, also while having him become the elder statesmen passing along his knowledge to Jokiharju et. al, who each get some time with the guru.

It Was the BLURST of Times: In place of you-could-mistake-him-for-a-fencepost Jordan Oesterle (who doesn’t even merit a skypoint), Q falls back into a comfortable situation that is well past its prime, as he is wont to do—pairing Keith and Seabrook together. Our Nachos preview is still to come so I won’t dive into the details here, but you know as well as I do that he’s only going to be slower and more bloated this year, and pairing him and Keith together would not only be viciously counterproductive, it would be a sad coda to what was once a great partnership. Equally awful would be pairing Keith with Brandon Manning, the literal definition of “just a guy.” In either of these situations Keith’s diminishing speed and possession problems will only become more glaring.

Prediction: In all honesty, Keith probably gets stuck with a rotating cast of jamokes, as Q desperately searches for a pairing that works but that for some reason doesn’t involve Connor Murphy. There will be parts of games where he’s paired with Seabrook, and the collective scorching of retinas will force him to abandon that plan. Then Rutta and Gustafsson will get their turns, neither of whom will be able to compensate for Keith’s slower step. There very well could be a 20-game stretch of Keith-Rutta where Keith does his best at damage control and we all hide behind our couches for their shifts. And yet somehow, Keith will end the season with 8 goals and over 40 points. Hockey is weird and it’s bound to happen for REASONS that won’t make sense. Welcome to 2018.

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