LA Kings: Olli Maatta’s play further justifies dynamic defenseman need

LA Kings (Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
LA Kings (Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports) /

Olli Maatta’s play thus far in the 2021 season further justifies the LA Kings need to acquire an offensive-minded defenseman.

While the offseason was generally quiet for Rob Blake and the LA Kings, their primary objective was to acquire a left-shot defenseman. Over the last two seasons, Drew Doughty‘s play dropped off and whether that can be attributed to the team’s basement-dwelling status remains to be determined. Essentially, I’m suggesting Doughty wasn’t giving it his all the last two years.

That said, Kings management was determined to give Doughty a defensive partner on the top pairing to help him return to Norris Trophy form. In the 19-20 season, the 30-year-old spent the majority of the season with Ben Hutton, and the results left a lot to be desired.

In early October, the Kings struck a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, acquiring defenseman Olli Maatta in exchange for forward Brad Morrison, in what boiled down to a salary dump for Chicago. Maatta won two Stanley Cups during his time in Pittsburgh, and he’s only 26 years of age. On paper, it felt like a match made in heaven.

Over the previous six seasons, here’s how Maatta ranked (compared to the rest of the league’s defensemen), according to TopDownHockey’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) model measured by percentile. Simply put, Maatta had a great year in 16-17, but a “best-fit” line would suggest the Jyväskylä, Finland native is an average blueliner.

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Leading up to the regular season, both Doughty and Maatta spoke highly of one another, indicating they think the same way on the ice, setting up a promising 2021 for both players. However, once the regular season was underway, Maatta looked lost adjusting to Todd McLellan’s system and sat for a few games, a reset if you will.

LA Kings rookie and former 2017 fourth-round pick Mikey Anderson was promoted to the top pairing during Maatta’s absence. The Doughty/Anderson duo has been a consistent pairing ever since, accounting for over 320 minutes of on-ice time entering Wednesday’s finale with the Ducks.

When Maatta returned to the lineup, he spent a considerable amount of time paired with Austin Strand on the third pairing, accounting for a 45.5 xGF% (expected-goals-for percentage) in an 87-minute on-ice sample size. The former Penguins’ 22nd overall pick in 2012 kind of “found himself,” so to speak, on the third pairing, which was a far cry from where the LA Kings envisioned his role.

I don’t think anybody expected Maatta to put up crazy numbers with or without Drew Doughty. That’s never been his game. Again, his best season came in 17-18 when he tallied seven goals and 29 points while playing in all 82 games. Still, his defensive WAR that season was better than his offensive WAR, and that’s been the theme throughout his career.

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Maatta has played 20 games in the 2021 regular season and has just one assist to show for it. That’s it. He’s averaging 17:20 of on-ice time, the lowest of his career. As noted, he leans on his defensive play more than his puck-moving abilities, currently within the 83rd percentile for xGA (expected-goals-against) in even-strength play.

The quality of his teammates still hasn’t been great, but Maatta is also playing weaker competition than previous seasons. Again, nobody expects Maatta to put up 30 points, but I think most were expecting more offensively from the 26-year-old. He’s been above average on the penalty kill, which has attributed to the team’s overall success in that department.

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Olli Maatta is under contract for another season beyond 2021. He comes at a $4.1M cap hit and will certainly be left exposed for Seattle’s expansion draft. But you can certainly understand why Blake is looking for a dynamic, left-shot defenseman. The Kings have a lot of youth in Bjornfot and Clague along the left side, and they lack offense from the blueline when both Kurtis MacDermid and Maatta draw into the lineup.

MacDermid deserves another post altogether, so I’ll just leave it at that. The point is, LA must find an offensive-minded defenseman during the offseason, preferably after the Kraken’s expansion draft, to improve scoring from the blueline. Doughty is having a great year, but the Kings are getting nothing offensively from the rest of the group.

MacDermid has the second-most goals among LA Kings defensemen. That’s a problem.