The Penguins are faced with another serious health scare.
Defenseman Olli Maatta will undergo surgery next week remove a tumor from his neck which potentially could be a low-grade thyroid cancer. According to Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, the team's physician, Maatta has "about an 85 percent chance that it's cancer."
Despite the tumor, Maatta is scheduled to participate in all three of the Penguins' game this week. Rebounding from offseason shoulder surgery, Maatta has appeared in all seven of the team's game this season and has five points (one goal, four assists).
Recovery is expected to take approximately four weeks. He is not expected to undergo any chemotherapy or radiation treatment. According to Vyras, there will be a recovery time period of seven to 10 days to allow the wound to heal. After that healing, Maatta will be permitted to resume workouts. The tumor was found during a simple examination during preseason physicals by Dr. Eric Anish, a physician who assists Vyas.
Maatta described his reaction to the news in a very matter-of-fact fashion.
"I don’t think …. You know what, I didn’t feel any different," Maatta said. "I felt the same as I did before I found out. And I don’t’ think right now I feel any different than I did a year ago or anything. I feel healthy and I feel fine. The only thing that’s different, now I know I maybe have cancer. You know what, it’s tough news but I don’t think it really has affected me much."
"As I said before, anything hasn’t really changed. I haven’t really been that worried. I’ve been talking to [the doctor] a lot, the trainers trying to find out everything I can about the cancer. You know what, I know I’m going to be fine. I haven’t really been that worried about because I know we have a great medical staff here and they’re going to take care of me."
General manager Jim Rutherford lauded Maatta for how he has handled the condition.
"I will say that this news came out about three weeks ago when Olli was first made aware of it and watching the young man continue his life and play the way he’s played is absolutely amazing," Rutherford. "It’s amazing that he could still concentrate and continue on. He’s kept this to himself. I know a couple of his teammates knew about it. I can’t say enough about Olli about how he’s handled this news."
Defenseman Robert Bortuzzo was described as "ready" to return from a knee injury which has sidelined him since the preseason.
EN Says: The first time I met Maatta was on a boat.
In the days leading to the 2012 NHL Draft here in Pittsburgh, the NHL arranged a variety of media events around the city, one of which included having many of the top prospects in the draft talk to members of the media on one of the Gateway Clipper Fleet's boats. It was a nice, quiet event but it was simply a scorching day in late June. Just about everyone was struggling with the sun as the event was held on the top deck of the boat.
Maatta stood out to me during that event because he was sweating profusely. As a fair-skinned kid from Finland, he probably didn't have to often deal with temperatures approaching 100 degrees in his home country or in London, Ont., the city where he played junior hockey.
I also remember his hair. He had one of the worst haircuts I had ever seen in person on a human being. It looked like a spiky mullet with too much gel that was styled with a claw hammer:
To myself, I wondered if this sweaty Finn with a butchered head of hair was ever going to make it in the NHL.
I've never been more wrong with a first impression of someone in my life.
In the season-plus Maatta has played at the NHL level, it's become quite apparent to anyone who has talked to him that he is as composed of an individual as there is in the NHL. Nothing seems to rattle him.
I've had conversations with him about everything from the grind of an 82-game season, his mandatory conscription to the Finnish military, the penalty kill as well as the appeal of reindeer meat, a delicacy in Finland, and his tone and demeanor has always been the same. You could ask him to rake leaves or defuse a nuclear warhead and you would get a calm, quiet response each time.
When Maatta had his nine-game "tryout" last season where the Penguins had the choice of sending him back to London or keeping him on the NHL roster, teammate Jussi Jokinen, a fellow Finn who served as a "big brother" to Maatta, joked, "I think I’ve been maybe more nervous than him if he’s going to stay or not."
Part of that is maturity. Teammates have raved about his discipline when it comes to his diet and sleeping. How often can one describe the sleeping and eating habits of an average 20-year-old male in a positive sense?
Make the NHL at 19? Meh.
Avoid a forecheck from Milan Lucic? Yawn.
Help Finland win a bronze medal in the Olympics. Whatever.
Suit up for regular season games only five months after shoulder surgery. Sure.
Play games with a potentially cancerous tumor? Okay.
The composure Maatta showed in today's news conference was remarkable but at the same time, it wasn't surprising. He's just a chill guy.
And his hair is much better these days.
A very, very secondary concern with this is what it means for the lineup. If such a thing can be said, the timing of this works out well as Bortuzzo is on the verge of returning to the lineup. A recall from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton such as Scott Harrington or Taylor Chorney may have to be made in the mean time. And while Maatta's $894,167 salary cap hit on his entry-level deal is a drop in the bucket as far as the salary cap is concerned, it appears the Penguins could place him on long-term injured reserve to get some salary cap relief if necessary.
(Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)