In the middle of the second period, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola pinched along the right-wing wall. Unchallenged, he circled the offensive zone, around the net, the darted to the net. His shot trickled wide, but it was a good day for the Penguins third pairing with Riikola and Chad Ruhwedel.
Since the pair was joined just a couple of weeks ago, after the return of Justin Schultz but the loss of Brian Dumoulin, not all of the nights have been stellar.
A favored source told PHN last week that coaches believe Riikola can be an excellent defenseman but have been disappointed with parts of his development. The feeling is Riikola hasn’t yet gained the awareness on the smaller North American ice surface, which creates some defensive zone issues.
PHN had a lengthy chat with Riikola last month. In the unpublished discussion about his play, his mantra was, “keep it simple.” That mantra somewhat contradicts what the Penguins coaches feel he is capable.
In short, the Penguins are still high on Riikola’s potential but want more. In fact, while Penguins GM Jim Rutherford expects to make another trade or two before the deadline, there is a feeling they don’t absolutely need help on defense.
The last part may not be unanimous.
For weeks, the Penguins coaches avoided Riikola and Ruhwedel together. For a couple of weeks after Dumoulin’s injury, the top pairing was John Marino and Kris Letang, which used two righties together and negated the need for Riikola in the lineup. The Penguins were aided by a week off over the NHL holiday break and the nine-day bye week/All-Star break. So, they only needed to patchwork their defense for three weeks without Schultz.
Coaches avoided starting the season with Riikola in the top-six, as well. In the final preseason games, he played with Erik Gudbranson as regular, but after Marino’s recall in the first week of the season, Marino supplanted both of them in the rotation.
“Juuso is a mobile skater. I think there’s another level of offense to Juuso’s game. We’d like to see him be a little bit more active off the rush,” Sullivan responded to PHN Sunday morning. “Off the offensive blue line, he can really shoot the puck. He’s a good passer. He’s got good instincts.”
Part of the problem also lies in the Penguins’ usage of Riikola. In nearly two full seasons with the NHL team, Riikola has played only 68 games, and a handful of those games were at forward earlier this season. Riikola hasn’t had an extended opportunity to grow and learn at the NHL level or enough time in a low-pressure AHL environment.
But he is no longer waiver exempt, so there is no looking back.
Conversely, the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t hesitated to use Chad Ruhwedel. The spare defenseman has played 34 games and is approaching his career-high (44). The Penguins even slid the right-handed Ruhwedel to the left side to pair with Schultz in the games following Schultz’s return last month.
Ruhwedel has 18 playoff games on his resume, including 12 during the Penguins 2017 Stanley Cup run.
“Chad’s just a reliable, solid defending defenseman,” Sullivan said. “He uses his mobility and stick to defend. He’s defended really well for us.”
Sunday against the woefully inept Detroit Red Wings, who have a negative goal differential which surpassed 100 goals, the Pittsburgh Penguins third pairing was stout. They pushed the puck and defended well.
“That’s really all we’re asking for that pair, and they’ve done a good job for us,” Sullivan said before the game.
The pair didn’t have good outings against Tampa Bay last week, and the coaches rotated Ruhwedel and Riikola through other pairs to manage workloads. Later in the game, Sullivan and assistant Jacques Martin avoided Riikola-Ruhwedel together and eventually benched the pair against the high-powered Tampa Bay forwards (which are now even deeper with Blake Coleman).
There is a growing advanced stats argument for Riikola, which is beginning to percolate in Penguins social media. Riikola’s Corsi rating is above water at 53%. When he is on the ice at 5v5, the Penguins goals-for ratio is 63%, the scoring-chance rate is 58%, and so on.
All stats courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com and their player page.
Those are substantial numbers, and it is easy to pair Riikola’s physical tools with those numbers to create a perception that he is ready for primetime. But I’ll offer one note of caution. The coaches watch a lot more film and film from different angles. The Penguins coaches also aren’t dummies. They want Riikola to succeed but don’t feel here’s good enough in his own end.
There are just seven days until the NHL Trade Deadline. It’s the Pittsburgh Penguins decision time on Riikola, at least for this season. Is he capable of hard minutes in big situations as a top-six defenseman, or is he not?
Rutherford’s final answer may depend as much on the price of external options as internal beliefs.