PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola is set to make his NHL debut just three games into his first professional season in North America. The 24-year-old Finnish defenseman with a quick grin and wide eyes was a high point of Penguins preseason and despite his waiver exemption, the Penguins chose to waive forward Derek Grant in order to keep eight defensemen and put Riikola in the lineup.
However, the advice is not flowing in, according to Riikola.
“Don’t think too much,” he deadpanned.
Riikola has not allowed the transition from the larger rinks in the Finnish Elite League and to the smaller North American rinks and style affect him. If he’s been nervous or felt out of place, the young Finn has not betrayed his emotions.
“It helps of course (not being nervous),” he said. “You just focus what you need to do, your own job on the ice.”
Riikola resembles fan-favorite Phil Kessel’s media answers. Short and to the point. Which is also one of the reasons Riikola’s game has translated well to the North American style. He doesn’t waste time, hits the opponents in the defensive zone, quickly rushes the puck forward, or snaps a breakout pass. He will play the right side of the Penguins third pairing with hulking defenseman Jamie Oleksiak.
“He’s great. He’s so good defending especially in our own zone. He can help me a lot and I like to play with (Oleksiak),” said Riikola.
Oleksiak also thinks the pair has chemistry. They were paired together in preseason until Penguins coaches decided to pair Jack Johnson and Olli Maatta, which put Oleksiak with Justin Schultz.
“He’s really good with the puck. Good guy to play with. And a really good shot,” said Oleksiak. “He plays a physical game, too. It’s a little surprising, the European guys coming over, you don’t expect it. He’s not afraid to throw the body around.”
The Penguins third pairing could be a physical thump for the Vegas Golden Knights. Riikola was not shy about hitting opponents in the preseason. Though the regular season is a different situation.
“Communication will be key tonight. We’ll keep it simple and build off that,” Oleksiak said. “We don’t have to over complicate things. He knows what he has to do.”
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan stopped short of fully committing to Riikola’s NHL debut.
“If those guys play tonight, then those two guys have the ability to play the right side. Both of them are versatile in the sense that they can play both the right and left sides and have a comfort level there.”
With Olli Maatta taking extra ice time after practice Wednesday and Riikola taking line rushes all week, the debut is all but assured. Finland is seven hours ahead of Eastern time, so when the puck drops Thursday just after 7 p.m., it will be 2 a.m. in Finland.
“I’m pretty sure (my family) will watch the game. They’re always supporting me and I have a great family back home and…I’m happy,” Riikola admitted.
However, Pittsburgh Hockey Now failed in our effort to find the one thing Riikola is most looking forward to in his debut.
“All,” he laughed.