It didn’t take long for Olli Maatta to make a favorable impression on Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde.
After Maatta signed as a free agent with the Wings in July, Lalonde made a quick phone call to his new defenseman.
Maatta was forthright and honest about himself as a player, and where he wanted to get better.
“He said, ‘The last few years, I’ve had slow starts, and it’s something I want to work on’,” Lalonde recalled. “I love the fact he communicated that five minutes into our first conversation. We talked about some things, and he hit the ground running from day one (this season), so I give him a lot of credit.”
General manager Steve Yzerman signed Maatta, 28, to a one-year, $2.25 million contract — which, this deep into the season, remains arguably, one of the better unrestricted free-agent signings of the summer.
Maatta is a defensive defenseman who isn’t going to overwhelm anyone with his statistics, although with four goals and 12 assists (16 points), he’s enjoying his best offensive season since 2017-18 in Pittsburgh, when he had 29 points.
Whatever expectations the organization had for Maatta, it’s likely he’s bested them by miles.
“Surpassed mine,” Lalonde said. “I appreciated him as a player, seeing him around the league, but having him every day, he has an unbelievable work ethic. He’s a pro. He comes to practice every day, takes his reps seriously, and it translates into his game. He’s just a great pro, a real good NHL defenseman who has helped us a ton.”
With the Wings teetering between contending for the playoffs and falling too far behind, it’s still unclear what Yzerman will do before or at the March 3 trade deadline.
Maatta is the type of veteran defenseman many contenders would love to obtain for the playoffs. But, Maatta is blocking that kind of speculation the best he can and concentrating on the on-ice matters.
“It really doesn’t bother you. You just go out and play the same way as you have (all season),” said Maatta, who has been through the trade-deadline chatter in years past. “It’s something you can’t control. It’s always there, but you have to kind of leave it out of your mind.”
Maatta believes players who’ve been in the NHL for a while are likely to handle this time of season better. They’ve gone through it, realize mostly the speculation never leads to anything, and a lot of time and energy gets needlessly spent on gossip.
“(The trade rumors are) a reality, and where we are in the standings makes a difference, but some of the older guys, you know what it’s like,” Maatta said. “Your job is to go out there and win games.”
With the one-year contract, Maatta is able to be an unrestricted free agent again this summer. But, in a perfect world, Maatta would like to remain in Detroit.
Maatta has found this season to be enjoyable on and off the ice.
“It’s a good fit; I’d definitely love to stay here,” Maatta said. “You’re always trying to make a home base for yourself and getting comfortable after the last couple of years (playing in Chicago and Los Angeles) moving from different places every year, it felt like. It’s not easy.
“I’ve really liked it here, the atmosphere, the guys in the room, and the organization. The city is awesome. It would be nice, but you never know what’ll happen. I’ve seen it before. It’s nothing against you (if a trade happens). It just happens.”
The best way, at least until the trade deadline, for the Wings to remain whole and not enable Yzerman to trade players away, is to keep winning.
Maatta feels the Wings have shown they can be a competitive team. Now, it’s a matter of playing that way consistently.
The Wings opened a five-game, nine-day road trip Monday in Vancouver.
“When we play together, when we do that, we’re a good team,” Maatta said. “When we play responsible hockey we’re good enough to score goals, and when we play as a five-man unit we’re tough to play against and we can score goals.
“It’s about trusting what we can do and in playing the way we can.”