Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman and occasional depth forward Juuso Riikola is one of the Penguins restricted free agents this offseason. The team owns his rights, but after he spent most of the season as an extra defenseman in the press box, his contractual outlook and immediate future aren’t entirely clear.
A source close to Riikola told Pittsburgh Hockey Now that Riikola is committed to staying in North America, and has no plans to return to his native Finland, where he played his first five seasons.
Riikola is an RFA with arbitration rights and could receive a significant raise over his recent $850,000 salary, which also casts some doubt on his future. The Penguins recently signed right-side depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel to another one-year contract, which will pay $750,000 through 2022.
Riikola is a left-side D-man with swift skates, good puck movement, and a little bit of sandpaper, too.
Will Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford choose to extend a qualifying offer, which by CBA rules must be at least $935,000? An arbitrator could award Riikola even more.
In his two NHL seasons, Riikola has played 37 and 36 games, respectively. This season, the Finnish defender had one-goal and six assists. He scored the goal while playing forward.
Complicating Riikola’s future is the potential readiness of top defenseman prospect and LHD Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Zach Trotman has also played NHL games for the Pittsburgh Penguins in each of the last two seasons and played ahead of Riikola as injuries mounted last season.
At mid-season, a Penguins team source gave PHN the lowdown on Riikola and the Penguins’ thinking surrounding his future. Given the turnover behind the Penguins bench, the info may be dated and subject to change.
The source told PHN the Penguins loved Riikola’s potential, his speed, and thought highly of his future. However, the Penguins coaches were also not satisfied with his development on the North American sized rinks; coaches felt Riikola lacked aggressiveness. They wanted him to defend his zone harder and be more engaged.
The organization absolutely raves about Joseph. WBS Penguins GM and head coach Mike Vellucci offered glowing praise to PHN.
“He’s such a great kid,” Vellucci said multiple times. Joseph was also part of the Pittsburgh Penguins expanded 31-player roster.
Will the Penguins spend an additional few hundred thousand on Riikola, when they could have Trotman in the press box for less?
One alternative for Riikola’s future is to attempt to slide him through waivers to the WBS Penguins. One reason the Penguins have not done that before is they believed another team would certainly claim Riikola.
Since the Penguins lost depth players, including Stefan Noesen, to waivers last season, that view has merit.
Another alternative which neither side can discuss is the possibility of signing Riikola to a contract for less than what may be full market value. Teddy Blueger chose that route last offseason when he inked a two-year deal for less than his qualifying offer. Blueger signed a two-year deal with a $750,000 AAV after making $705,000 the previous season.
Riikola’s alternative would be to negotiate towards arbitration and essentially push his way towards unrestricted free agency with a higher ask, so he can choose his next situation with a team ready to award him NHL ice-time.