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.