PITTSBURGH –The Pittsburgh Penguins played their expected opening night roster, plus Juuso Riikola against the Buffalo Sabres in their next to last preseason game Wednesday night. A few weeks of training camp and preseason games have dragged until they seem like months, except for the Riikola revelation.
The Sabres didn’t ice their best line up because they played Tuesday night in the Kraft Hockeyville showcase game at the winning arena in Clinton, N.Y. (the first time in three years a Pittsburgh region arena didn’t win the award), so the Penguins had an easy time against Buffalo. In fact, Buffalo didn’t get their sixth shot on goal until the second period, but at least starting goalie Matt Murray got to practice his 2016 regular season form of staying focused despite a lack of challenge.
Riikola, 24, was again a standout, Wednesday night. He drilled Buffalo regular Jason Pominville with a perfectly executed hip-check, and he made noise by planting several Sabres into the wall. The Penguins weren’t defensively tested, but Riikola was perfect, regardless.
Riikola hit 29 so hard, he sent him back to Pominville. ???? pic.twitter.com/LHbyZCtDYC
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) September 27, 2018
It’s a bit of a quandary what to do with the Finnish rookie defenseman. Not only is he the shiny new toy in the Penguins toy box, but he’s also worthy of an NHL shot. Every bit of conventional wisdom points toward sending him down to the WBS Penguins to let him develop but his play on ice gives the Penguins reason to question conventional wisdom.
The 24-year-old has a big smile, average frame (6-foot-0, 190 pounds) plays a speed game with snarl. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan admitted he was surprised by Riikola’s physicality.
“What has surprised me,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said last Saturday, “is his willingness to embrace the physical and compete in the battle zones.”
Wednesday night, Riikola was credited with six hits and was nary out of place. Riikola has shown no need for an adjustment period to the smaller North American Rink. Last weekend, he too laughed about how comfortable he seems.
“I don’t know,” was all he needed to say about how he’s made such a seamless transition. “It’s good,” is all he offered about the smaller ice surface (You may watch Riikola’s full media chat from Saturday here via our YouTube channel, Pittsburgh Sports Live).
But where would Riikola fit with the Penguins? The Penguins are booked solid on the blue line, especially the left side. Jamie Oleksiak is the lowest ranked defenseman on the board, but at 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, Oleksiak brings a level of physicality the Penguins very much need, and Oleksiak is quite mobile, too. An Oleksiak for Riikola swap wouldn’t be in the Penguins favor.
Riikola could displace fellow Finn Olli Maatta but Riikola has to prove his steadiness against professional competition. While he’s been the story of the Penguins preseason, his warts have not yet emerged–assuming there are shortcomings to his game.
There is a question how much offense Riikola brings to a lineup. In that sense, he is a bit of an unknown quantity. His goal last Saturday against Columbus, in which he skated through the neutral zone and around the Columbus defenders was a thing of beauty. But will he settle into a defensive defenseman or an all-round defenseman?
Prediction: The easy path to predict is Riikola becomes the defenseman in waiting. Riikola will likely begin the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but the story will not end there. He is clearly better than seventh defenseman Chad Ruhwedel; that isn’t a question. In this scenario, when the need arises, Riikola would be called up and leapfrog Ruhwedel into the Penguins lineup.
With strong and steady play in WBS, Riikola gives the Penguins a trade chip. If not Riikola on the table, Riikola could make Maatta, and Maatta’s $4.083 million salary, expendable.
For now, Riikola is on the outside of the Penguins top six defenders, but the Penguins should be looking for any excuse to insert him into the regular season lineup to see what their shiny new toy can do.