The Pittsburgh Penguins blue line did not endure the quantity of injuries in the pre-pandemic season, which the forwards group suffered. Instead of volume, the Penguins defensive corps missed half of its top-four defensemen, which had a rippling effect on pairings and responsibilities. Somewhat lost in the shuffle was spare defenseman Juuso Riikola.
Riikola was the cinderella of the 2018 Penguins training camp. With speed and a little bit of sandpaper, Riikola secured a roster spot for most of the season, though he played only 37 games.
“Keep it simple,” Riikola told PHN through his typical smile and broken English. We had a brief chat with the defensemen in late December before Brian Dumoulin returned to the lineup, and the Penguins had their top-six reunited.
Chats with Riikola aren’t typically long. His English is still a work in progress, but he usually manages to make his point, as long as the questions are straight forward. That was his mantra.
“Keep it simple.”
Through the first 70 Penguins games this season, Riikola played only 36 games, including a handful at forward. Riikola appeared poised to crack the Penguins lineup this season, but no one expected a rookie from Harvard, John Marino, to lock down a position.
On the eve of the regular season, Penguins coaches gave Riikola and Erik Gudbranson an extended look. Riikola had the chance to not only gain ice time but to supplant Penguins fans’ favorite scapegoat Jack Johnson as the left side of the third pairing. Even this writer advocated the move.