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Kingerski: Go Ahead, Start Riikola, Bench Jack Johnson



Pittsburgh Penguins Juuso Riikola, Jack Johnson

Juuso Riikola skated on the Pittsburgh Penguins third pairing Tuesday, and stalwart Jack Johnson did not. Johnson is the much-maligned Penguins defensemen whom fans have held responsible for everything from Phil Kessel’s failure to cross the blue line to the breakdown of the team defensive concepts. And somewhere deep in the internet bowels, he was probably blamed for the JFK assassination.

The Johnson bashing ran amok as the search for answers to the Penguins malaise turned up little hard evidence.

Any player can be bashed if the contributions are ignored, the mistakes are magnified, and a few more mistakes are attributed. But things are different this season. The Penguins defense will need to contribute more offense to a roster dotted with more grinders and hustlers than have been deployed in a long time.

The Pittsburgh Penguins should insert Juuso Riikola into the lineup ahead of Jack Johnson. There, I wrote it.

Tuesday, the Penguins teased such a possibility by elevating Riikola, but head coach Mike Sullivan then pulled it back, too.

“I wouldn’t suggest (Johnson is in competition with Riikola). Everybody is in competition All of the guys who are here are in competition for positions,” Sullivan said. “So, it’s not about one guy versus another guy.”

In this case, it probably should be. Somewhere a mile back, the silly Penguins blogosphere proclaimed this writer the “Jack Johnson guy.” It was never real, as we aim to be objective, fair and accurate. Group opinions based more on group emotion than reality are worth less to PHN than Canadian quarters at a vending machine (Sorry, my lovely Canadian friends).

But Riikola deserves a shot. And Johnson may not be a good fit. Combine those factors, and the Penguins are justified in putting over $3 million in the press box. It’s not because Johnson is the terrible defenseman which Twitter has characterized him, but because the Penguins need Riikola’s skill set.

And Johnson has not had a good training camp. This summer, Johnson spent two months in Florida with his former trainer, “to become a better athlete.” Unfortunately, this preseason Johnson has played slow and been slow with the puck. Perhaps his offensive game has atrophied. The former offensive defenseman who was thrust into a defensive role during his final two seasons in Columbus and again in Pittsburgh has been under attack with the puck and not able to generate offensive pressure.

There are mitigating circumstances, such as being paired with first-year professionals and NHL hopefuls, but Gudbranson, nor Riikola have suffered as much from those impediments. In fact, Riikola has been good if not a little loose.

“I think Juuso has had a strong camp. He’s been getting better with each game he has played and I think his familiarity with the training camp itself and his surroundings helps him,” said Sullivan Tuesday after practice. 

Riikola, 25, was a first-year pro last season, which was his first in North America. The Penguins plucked the undrafted free agent from the Finnish Elite League, and he became the hit of training camp. Riikola played in 37 games last season and had five points (2g, 3a).

Riikola is fast, with a bit snarl and some days he brings a little agitation, too. He has offensive skills and puck skills, but they have been loose at times as he learns the North American game on a smaller rink.

The Penguins carried eight defensemen last season, in part to accommodate Riikola at the NHL level. It’s time to cash in on that investment.

Last February, the Penguins also acquired big Erik Gudbranson to patrol the blue line, rattle opponents and occasionally serve knuckle sandwiches to rowdy opponents. Gudbranson is not precisely an offense-first type defenseman. He is a fierce, physical defender who showed a surprising ability to participate in the play and move the puck. He can also take care of the front of the PEnguins net, which had become Johnson’s territory. However, Gudbranson had just one assist in 17 games and would be the defensive-minded partner in any pairing.

Since Penguins coaches placed young defenseman Marcus Pettersson on the second pairing with Justin Schultz, that leaves Johnson, Gudbranson, and Riikola for the third pairing. So, the Penguins have two choices. They can eschew balance and offense on their third pairing and go with Johnson-Gudbranson, or they can gamble with young speed and offense with Riikola-Gudbranson.

Riikola is still growing, and there would be more growing pains. His speed is an asset, and with more encouragement, his offensive game should further evolve. At 32-years-old, Johnson may be stuck as a defensive defenseman.

The “Jack Johnson-guy” says go for it. Roll with Riikola to begin the season. Push for more offense and speed on the back end. If Riikola is unable to make it work, Johnson will be at the ready.