Red Wings’ Määttä Extension Complicates Blue Line Picture

The Hockey Writers

When the Detroit Red Wings announced that they had signed an extension with one of their players, not many people expected that defenseman Olli Määttä was who they were talking about. Yet here we are, and now the Finnish defenseman is locked in for another two years on a deal that carries a $3 million cap hit.

The new deal is well-deserved. The 10-year veteran has proven to be a welcome addition to the Red Wings’ defensive group after general manager Steve Yzerman signed him as a free agent this past summer. But moves like this always have a ripple effect, and a look ahead shows that this signing shapes the Red Wings’ blue line differently than what most pundits had originally forecasted.

Määttä Is a Quiet, Dependable Contributor

When Määttä signed his one-year deal this past offseason, it was fairly easy to set expectations for the 28-year-old defender. He has never collected more than 29 points in a season, and he has recorded an average time on ice of 20 minutes or higher just once in his career (though he did average 19:58 during the 2015-16 season as well.) Suffice it to say that he was brought in to be a defense-first defenseman that could help balance out Detroit’s defensive pairings. With his name appearing on the Stanley Cup twice (2016 and 2017, both with the Pittsburgh Penguins), he would also provide championship experience to a Red Wings locker room that lacked in that department.

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To this point in the season, Määttä has been everything the Red Wings expected and more. His 17 points are his most since the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season, and his 82 blocked shots place him third on the team, behind only Moritz Seider and Ben Chiarot. But perhaps the biggest impact Määttä has had is on his teammates, most notably Filip Hronek.

In 441 five-on-five minutes with both Hronek and Määttä on the ice, the Red Wings have outscored their opponents 22-11; in 478 five-on-five minutes away from Määttä, the Red Wings have tied their opponents 21-21 with Hronek on the ice (according to Natural Stat Trick). This is particularly notable because, prior to this season, many people that followed the Red Wings were starting to doubt Hronek’s effectiveness and long-term fit with this team. Määttä truly seems to have helped bring out the best in Hronek, who is on pace for the best season of his career in terms of offensive and defensive statistics.

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Since the calendar flipped to 2023, Määttä has spent most of his time playing on the Red Wings’ third pairing alongside a rotating cast of Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Lindström and Robert Hägg. While it has become clear that the Red Wings are a man down in terms of icing a fully capable six-man unit on defense, Määttä has become a true stabilizing force, giving head coach Derek Lalonde confidence in using all three of his d-pairings over the course of any given game.

Olli Maatta Detroit Red Wings
Olli Maatta, Detroit Red Wings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Määttä isn’t the flashiest player or even the best defender on his team, but it is clear that the Red Wings’ blue line is in much better shape since he joined the team.

What About Walman & Prospects?

Määttä’s new deal obviously means that he is slated to be a part of the Red Wings’ defense through the end of the 2024-25 season. He joins Chiarot, another 2022 offseason signing, as the only NHL defender Detroit has signed past next season, though it can be assumed that they will work out a long-term extension with Seider once they can begin negotiations this summer. However, this highlights some important decisions Yzerman will have to make over the coming weeks, months, and years as he attempts to reshape the Red Wings’ blue line.

The Red Wings’ most intriguing pending free agent on defense is Jake Walman, a 27-year-old defenseman that was acquired in the Nick Leddy trade last year. Though he has just 112 regular season games to his credit, Walman has already established some serious chemistry with Seider on Detroit’s top pairing.

Walman, a left-handed defenseman just like Chiarot and Määttä, seems like a fairly obvious choice to be extended past this season. He likely wouldn’t command a ton of money, even on a long-term deal, and he played a role in reigniting Seider after the reigning rookie of the year endured a sophomore slump to begin this season. However, extending Walman means that Detroit would have three left-handed defensemen signed for next season and beyond, something that isn’t necessarily a bad thing until you consider what type of prospects the Red Wings have waiting in the wings.

In our recent rankings, five of the Red Wings’ top-10 prospects are left-handed defensemen including their most NHL-ready prospect, Simon Edvinsson. Ideally, every team wants to have three left-handed defensemen and three right-handed defensemen; the Red Wings have had that setup for the last few seasons, including this one. If the Red Wings were to extend Walman, they would have their three left-handers set, with Seider and Hronek counting as two out of three right-handed defenders. But then what about Edvinsson, Albert Johansson, William Wallinder and others?

Related: Red Wings Top 25 Prospects: 2022-23 Midseason Rankings

If the Red Wings were to extend Walman, they would have to move one of their current lefties over to the right side in order to accommodate Edvinsson joining the team next season (he was one of the last cuts before the start of this season.) Chiarot has played on his off-side before, so it’s not impossible – it’s just not ideal.

It then begs the question: does it truly make sense for the Red Wings to extend Walman? They can make accommodations for Edvinsson next season, but Johansson and Wallinder aren’t far behind him; how can they make those same accommodations for them if Walman, Seider, Chiarot and Määttä are all signed, leaving just two spots open without accounting for the possibility that Detroit could extend Hronek as well?

Jake Walman Detroit Red Wings
Jake Walman, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

With Walman playing the best hockey of his NHL career and in his prime right now, is it outlandish to suggest that Yzerman may be considering selling high on him? Considering Yzerman has always had the big picture in mind as he approached the task of rebuilding the Red Wings, it’s fair to assume that he has already considered the ramifications of the Määttä extension and he already knows exactly what he intends to do with Walman.

For Now, Määttä Remains a Red Wing

But don’t let any of this distract from the fact that Määttä absolutely deserved this extension. His signing wasn’t the most exciting during Yzerman’s free agent spending spree, but you can make the argument today that he has been the most important addition to the Red Wings’ lineup. It’s important for a team to have stability and reliability, especially on defense, and that’s exactly what he has provided from day one. Keeping him around a bit longer also helps provide continuity as the team hopes to continue integrating younger players into their lineup over the coming years.

Yes, it becomes a little bit difficult to see how all of the Red Wings’ defensive prospects will factor in over the coming years, but that’s none of Määttä’s concern, at least for right now. Right now his biggest concern is helping the Red Wings translate their recent success into a playoff chase for the first time since 2016.

Everything else is for Yzerman to figure out, and for people like me to write about.

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