Sun Feb 26 04:00pm EST
Quite often, a player in his first North American season might start to hit a wall as the regular season grinds on. Yet Olli Määttä seems to be defying that rule of thumb as he helps the London Knights move closer to securing home-ice advantage throughout the Ontario Hockey League playoffs.
Määttä, whose world junior tournament ended after one game for Finland when he sustained a concussion, has seemed surer of himself on the ice over the past few weeks. The fact he had nine points in 12 games this month reflects his ever-increasing facility with the OHL game, although he's expected to be a shutdown defenceman at the next level.
"I really feel I'm enjoying playing right now," the Jyvaskyla, Finland, native said on Sunday prior to notching two assists in a London road win at Ottawa. "I'm much better than I was at the start of the season. It was a big difference between Finland and Canada, but I'm really feeling comfortable playing here."
Määttä's No. 6 spot in NHL Central Scouting's North American midterm rankings in January might have been too optimistic by half. That said, the NHL team which takes him in June will get a steady performer who has managed to become physically stronger over the course of the year. By most accounts, the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Määttä is more of a workout fiend than the typical 17-year-old junior.
"I have a dream to play in the NHL, win the Stanley Cup, win the Memorial Cup, that's all the motivation for me," he says.
A scouting department would have to believe that Määttä's skating — which can often be one of the later pieces of the puzzles for many young Finnish players — and offensive side will improve before chancing a first-rounder on him. On the latter count, Määttä, whose defence coach in London is former NHLer Rob Ramage, has begun picking spots when he can go to the net. He did just that on Sunday to set up a big goal, making a cross-crease feed to Toronto Maple Leafs prosect Greg McKegg to create the chance.
"Olli's been very, very good," says Knights assistant coach and assistant GM Misha Donskov, who notes Määttä compares well with teammate Scott Harrington, who's a year older and has already been signed by the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. "He's one of the hardest-working guys on our team. He's a character kid, he stays in the pocket, he has good hockey sense and he's a great passer. He's not afraid to take a hit to make a play. We think he's going to be elite. He's really improved over the past 15-20 games."
London is anticipating a long playoff run. That would give Määttä further exposure on top of what he's already had by representing Finland in two world junior tourneys and in last spring's world under-18, where he thrived as a underager.
"It's the best time for a hockey player, of course, and the whole team is looking forward to it," he says of the playoffs.
"The defenceman I watch a lot of is [Detroit Red Wings captain] Nicklas Lidstrom, of course. He makes the game look so easy. He's a big one for me. Kimmo Timonen from Philadelphia is another, the Finnish defenceman."
2. Aside from the obvious — getting stronger, quicker — what is the biggest skill you need to work on before you can turn pro?
"Well, I do need to work on my skating, but also my shot. I've really been working on it." (Editor's note: Määttä had his first two-goal game for the Knights last Friday in Kingston.)
3. There will always be surprises when you come to a new league no matter how much research you do on it. What surprised you the most about the OHL?
"Maybe having three games in row on weekends, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It's tough. In Finland we would have games on, say, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday, or only play two games in a week."
4. Aside from family and friends, what do you miss most about home?
"Sauna. It's a Finnish tradition and I really love going there. I've been a few times in Canada but it's nothing like in Finland."
5. Favourite TV show or movie?
"Favourite TV show? I watch The Mentalist a lot. My favourite movie is The Shawshank Redemption."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).