Skip to main content
Team Finland

Olli Maatta set to lead new generation of defensemen

At 22, expected to be Team Finland's linchpin in quest for World Cup title

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director of Editorial

TORONTO -- Lifting the Stanley Cup high over his head on the evening of June 12 at SAP Center in San Jose was the greatest moment of Olli Maatta's young but eventful hockey career.

Yet he is already thinking about an encore.

"You think about it every day," Maatta said early in training camp in Helsinki, Finland when asked about helping the Pittsburgh Penguins defend the title earned with a six-game victory against the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final, a victory that capped an improbable year for both Maatta and the Penguins.

But first, Maatta has another championship to try to hunt down, the World Cup of Hockey 2016 as a key member of a young Team Finland defense. His latest quest starts Sunday in the opening game of Group B for Team Finland against Team North America at Air Canada Centre (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

The fact that Team Finland's training camp opened 81 days after Maatta skated around the SAP Center ice with the Stanley Cup is of little concern. Neither is the fact that his first competitive game is a mere 96 days after the highlight of his hockey life to this point.

Video: Maatta talks about his journey to the World Cup

"I can't remember the last time summer was this short," he said with a smile. "Usually the season starts with training camp and you have a little bit of adjustment time to get back to midseason form. Now you have to perform at a top level right away, right off the start.

"It's a different summer for sure and it's a different challenge. You love to play those games and I don't mind the short summer."

Maatta, 22, is young enough to pick up where he left off in June, playing the best hockey of his career. That is good for Team Finland because it expects Maatta to be a veteran linchpin on a defense that is dangerously young and inexperienced, at least when it comes to playing against the best players the NHL has to offer. 

Maatta has 165 games of regular-season NHL experience in three seasons. He's also played 31 Stanley Cup Playoff games, including 18 last spring.

That might not seem like a lot, but only Rasmus Ristolainen, 21, and Sami Vatanen, 25, have appeared in more regular-season games. Each has played 194.

The other three defensemen expected to start against Team North America on Sunday -- Esa Lindell, Ville Pokka and Sami Lepisto -- have combined for 180 NHL games. Lepisto, 31, has all but four of those, but none since the 2011-12 season.

So Team Finland has no choice but to rely on Maatta. But it goes deeper than that for coach Lauri Marjamaki.

"He played great last season and won the Stanley Cup," Marjamaki said. "He had a good summer and I feel he's a great player for our team, and, of course, he's experienced. He was only born in '94 but we trust him and he's a big part of our defense."

Normally that would be a lot of pressure for a 22-year-old, but for Maatta it is just the natural progression of hockey. Veteran players leave, new players arrive and are asked to fill the skates of the legends that have come before. He said he is ready to do his part.

"It is the new generation, [for the] defense at least," Maatta said. There's no more [Kimmo] Timonen, there's not more [Sami] Salo, [Teppo] Numminen, those guys. It is a different team, a different look.

"I don't think the [Team Finland] identity changes. It's the same way, but the guys are different. When you look at our future, there are a lot of young guys coming up. I think Finnish hockey is in pretty good shape."

Is the future now for Team Finland? That is the question it will answer at this World Cup. Advancement to the semifinals would go a long way in making a statement that the future has already arrived. Most likely it will only happen if Maatta plays as well as he ever has.

That mandate, he believes, is the price of admission for being a part of Team Finland.

"There's always pressure; you have to win," Maatta said. "You have to get the job done, whoever is in there. I think we all, as a team, take pride in that. It's a different team than it was five years ago. Half the team has changed, but the pride is still there.

"When you go into the games, you want to win. Team Finland, it's not easy to get here. I think everybody has that mindset that when you get to put this jersey on, you have to get the job done."

View More