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Bad Luck and Lack of Opportunity: When Will it Be Juuso Riikola’s Time?

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Juuso Riikola Pittsburgh Penguins

Juuso Riikola’s brief stints in the NHL have lasted shorter than a Ricola cough drop’s flavor. The Pittsburgh Penguins have continued to speak highly of Riikola yet the now 27-year old has limited NHL experience. Even then, Riikola spent time at forward in the 2019-20 season. Actions versus words.

After appearing in the first preseason game, Riikola has been moved to the Penguins Group A in training camp. Not only this but the Finish defender has been getting some powerplay reps in with the Penguins’ top unit as well.

With Cody Ceci’s departure in free agency, a battle for the final spot on the Penguins defense is open. Riikola is currently battling with the likes of Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Mark Friedman, and Chad Ruhwedel for the Penguins’ last spot in the defensive rotation.

Does Riikola actually have a shot at making it on the team? Riikola’s basic outlook is simple.

“Yeah, I think I need to play better. Coaches say that whoever plays the best is in the lineup. So that is how it is gonna work,” said Riikola.

Juuso Riikola’s Development

A lot has worked against Riikola’s development in the NHL. He has only played 75 career games at the NHL level and is still getting used to the different ice sizes after playing in Finland. Last season when it seemed like a perfect time for Riikola to take the next step with the Penguins injury situation, he was hurt as well. He only got into two games last season.

“Everybody knows that it is not easy to be out of the lineup and injured. At the same time you are out of the team when you are injured and that is not nice,” said Riikola.

In his limited time with the Penguins and in Wilkes-Barre Riikola has proven to be a steady NHL defenseman with some potential offensive upside. His offensive instincts and puck-moving skills could be of service to the Penguins if utilized properly. His slapshot is also more than average. 

Imagine having perfect symmetry with the Penguins’ defensive pairs. One offensive defenseman; Kris Letang, Mike Matheson, and Juuso Riikola, and one defensive-minded partner; Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Marcus Pettersson for each pair.

Pittsburgh Penguins Defensive Pairs

One problem that plagues this from happening is that the current slot is open in the Penguins defense is on the right side. If the Penguins decide to stick with everyone in their natural positions and don’t shuffle up the defensive lines, Riikola would be the odd man out once more as a left-side defenseman.

The Penguins’ left-side defensemen are Dumoulin, Matheson, and Pettersson, none of which will likely be replaced by Riikola. So does Sullivan switch him over to the right side?

“It is not the same as the left side. But like I have always said whatever they ask me to do I will do. There is some difference between playing right and left side like how your stick is,” said Riikola.

It will be interesting to see Mike Sullivan’s decision on who to put in the lineup as the sixth defenseman. He has two relatively young, but inexperienced at the NHL level defensemen in Friedman and Riikola as well as PO Joseph as the shiny new toy, or ol’ tried and true Ruhwedel.

Riikola’s focus is on getting better and just going out and playing.

“(I need to) do what I am good at. Nothing special, just play like I can play,” said Riikola.

Riikola’s Adjustment to the NHL

Adjusting not only to the North American ice but to North America in general has been a tall task for Riikola. His English is still not the best. But he makes up with it with his personality and charm. Riikola is has been seen rocking a new mustache as well. This change is motivated simply because it was “something to talk about.”

“I think I am a pretty happy guy and easy to be around,” said Riikola. 

But charisma alone won’t get Riikola into the Penguins lineup. With one year remaining on his $1.15 million deal, it is do-or-die time for Riikola to make the permanent jump to the NHL. If not, he could find himself either out of Pittsburgh or out of the NHL in general as soon as this summer.

*Owen Kreps is an intern for Pittsburgh Hockey Now. 

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Owen Krepps is a senior at Robert Morris University and an intern sportswriter for Pittsburgh Hockey Now. He also writes for Colonial Sports Network, Pittsburgh Sports Now, RMU Sentry Media, Pittsburgh Sports Castle, and formerly Vegas Hockey Now and The Titusville Herald. He also runs his own YouTube channel by the name of Owen Krepps.

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Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher
20 days ago

Play him!!!

Jay95
Jay95
20 days ago
Reply to  Mark Fisher

Agreed. I’d like to see both Riikola and Friedman get time on that 3rd pairing. Both are somewhat undersized, but skate very well, hit, have grit, pass decently, and…again…have grit (with skill).

Riikola’s skating and willingness to play physically make him a guy that has the ceiling of a top 4 defender if he puts it together. And, I feel like he will whether it’s with the Pens or somewhere else.

Jay95
Jay95
20 days ago

Honestly, with the way that the Pens roster is constructed they’re going to need their D to push some offense, at least for now. Guys like Marino and Matheson need to step up some. Having Joseph on the 3rd pair over Peterson would be ideal, but unlikely. That said, Riikola could be a HUGE factor if he finally puts it all together.

Here’s hoping.

teamquebec
teamquebec
20 days ago

I always liked the overall play of Riikola considering long streches of time without playing a game. He never looked lost when put in the lineup. Never understood why Sullivan didn’t play him more often….. True professionnal, has some skills, he deserves a real chance!

Rob
Rob
20 days ago

I am not sure that he will play well enough to beat out petterson, ruhwedel, friedman, or Joseph. My prediction is that they try to clear him through waivers and either he goes to wb/s or another team picks him up.

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