Olli Maatta, to put it lightly, is having a good season.
The 19-year-old Penguins phenom has exceeded any expectations anyone may have had of him coming into the season. Maatta so far has racked up 28 points (9G, 19A), with scoring often coming at key moments. He is +11 on the season and has been a mainstay on the Pens constantly-injured blue line, missing only one game so far as a healthy scratch (knock on wood), while logging heavy minutes (average of over 20 a game), often as part of the top defensive pairing along with Matt Niskanen and on both the powerplay and penalty kill. And that is to say nothing of his Olympic record (2G, 3A, and a bronze medal).
So why isn’t he a front runner for the Calder, the NHL’s annual award for best rookie of the year?
The answer is not fellow defenseman Seth Jones from Nashville (though he is also having a good season), but Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche. MacKinnon is a large part of the Avs’ renaissance (along with new coach Patrick Roy) and was the first rookie to break the 50 point mark. (He currently sits at 51 points with 22G, 29A, and has broken Gretzky’s rookie point streak record.) He averages about 17 minutes of ice time a game and is a +17. If Colorado makes it to the playoffs this year, MacKinnon will be one of the many players to thank. With a record like that, it’s hard to think Olli Maatta has a chance.
But is Maatta’s slim chance at the Calder really because MacKinnon is so much better than him, or is it further proof that the NHL simply doesn’t reward good defense the way it rewards good offense? If you don’t believe me, consider this: in the 90+ years the Calder has been awarded, it has only gone to a defensive prospect 10 times. The last defenseman it went to was Tyler Myers in 2009-2010, who put up 48 points (11G, 37A) – a stat that would be good even for a rookie forward.
Even the Norris – the top honor for any defenseman – often either goes to or is considered for defensmen who posses strong offensive skill or are high-scoring. (Subban, Letang, Weber, Suter, Doughty, Karlsson, and of course Lidstrom and Orr – and the list goes on), sometimes even at the cost of their defensive game. The Ted Lindsay Award has never gone to a defenseman. The Hart Trophy has only gone to a defenseman 13 times in its 90+ year history. Top stats for defensemen still are goals and assists, not things like +/-, which arguably would be a better stat for measuring defensive play, though it is still a highly flawed stat. One could argue that the lack of statistical ways to measure good defense, in comparison to the over-abundance of ways to measure good offense, is just another way that defensemen in the NHL often get the shaft when it comes to getting their share of glory.
Whoever you think is more deserving of the Calder – Maatta or MacKinnon – probably comes down to what you’re a fan of (offense versus defense, the Pens versus the Avs). But Maatta’s candidacy, and his slim chances of victory, should be taken as an argument that defensive play in the NHL, and not just goals and assists, should be given more weight and respect in the hockey world.