The Pittsburgh Penguins are in trouble for the next week, and the rippling effects could have larger consequences both on the team and on the organizational outlook. After missing his opportunity last season, Juuso Riikola is getting a re-do. After Joseph didn’t bring his best in training camp, he too is getting a re-do.
And both are missing their big chance.
The short-term consequence is Kris Letang is playing huge minutes to compensate for the Penguins lack of trust in their defenemen. Fresh from his stay in COVID protocol, Letang had to clear his system, get his lungs clear, and playing heavy and extended minutes immediately is a surefire way to wear him down.
We saw the result on Saturday night when a gassed Letang made a crucial mistake late in the game which led to the tying goal.
Make no mistake, the Penguins coaches–Todd Reirden and the video version of Mike Sullivan–are giving the called-up defensemen, Juuso Riikola and P.O. Joseph a chance. The situation demands it. Regulars Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson are in COVID protocol. So is Chad Ruhwedel, who was inserted in the lineup this season also because of necessity.
Dumoulin is guaranteed a spot upon return, but there existed further opportunity in training camp and again now for others to crack the lineup.
For Riikola, 27, this is probably his last chance. Instead of making the coach’s decision difficult, Riikola is making it easy. He played 11 minutes on Thursday in his first chance. He played 12 minutes on Saturday. PHN asked Reirden Saturday morning if the plan was to ease both Joseph and Riikola into the lineup.
Reirden instead raised the bar for defensemen to earn ice time.
“…a lot of times what happens is the players make those decisions for us as the game goes on–it’s based on merit and how things are going in a particular matchup with a particular pair,” Reirden said. “Sometimes we make adjustments in-game…But you know, I think as they earn more opportunity, they’ll be out there more often.”
The ice time stat is the coaches way of telling the player, and by proxy us, just what they think of the player’s performance. And clearly, the Penguins don’t think much of Riikola’s performance, and the reasons showed.
Riikola didn’t play in the final five minutes of the game and played only sparingly in the second and third periods after missing a few spots in the first 30 minutes. A player trying to crack the lineup or earn additional time can’t afford to make mistakes, get out of position, or miss coverages.
As Minnesota sent the house against the Penguins defense, Riikola was playing backward. In 11 minutes, Riikola faced nine shots and 13 attempts. By comparison, Mike Matheson faced the same number of shot attempts in nearly 20 minutes.
Minnesota made life hard on the Penguins defensemen, but the process also made Minnesota vulnerable to offensive chances created from good breakouts. The Penguins top pair created the chances. The other pairs–not so much.
“It’s about opportunity right through our lineup, our forwards, our defense. You know, we’re obviously not playing with our full complement of players. So players get opportunities, and either they take advantage of them, or they don’t…,” Reirden said Saturday morning.
For those of us who have watched and waited for Riikola to get his big chance, it suddenly seems like we’re watching his last chance.
The Penguins have not been able to develop Riikola–keeping him in the NHL press box for two years before his stock finally fell far enough that he cleared waivers to play in WBS late last season and again this season.
The defenseman has speed, some grit, and offensive skills, but after three-plus years, he hasn’t developed his defensive zone coverage or the North American nuances to compete on a nightly basis. Riikola doesn’t look like the same gung-ho kid who played 35 games as a rookie. A few years of watching and trying to be something else would get the best of most players.
Perhaps parting ways (eventually) will be best for both sides.
Riikola is showing that he is not an NHL regular, and if he is the Penguins eighth defenseman, GM Ron Hextall has the responsibility to add someone who can play at the NHL level without extreme sheltering.
The Penguins third-pairing has been a soft spot this season with Ruhwedel or Mark Friedman. Both are quality depth defensemen, neither are strong 5/6 defensemen, so there existed a genuine chance for the callups to crack the lineup. But it’s not happening.
Ideally, Hextall will add a top-six defenseman which would push both Ruhwedel and Friedman into the depth roles and give the Pittsburgh Penguins more serviceable options.
P.O. Joseph, Pittsburgh Penguins?
Consistency is key.
Joseph’s play has not been as spotty as Riikola, but perhaps more disappointing because of the high-hopes for Joseph to force his way into the lineup.
Coaches are telling us what we don’t want to hear. While second-pair right-sider John Marino played about 23 minutes on Saturday night, Joseph played only 17.
Reirden again kept Joseph on the pine intermittently, sheltering his workload on Saturday night. Joseph made a few glaring errors and didn’t do his part on Minnesota’s first goal. Joseph was soft on net-front coverage and too easy going in the defensive zone.
The stat line confirmed the eye test–Joseph amazingly had zero hits and zero hits taken, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“(Last year) I didn’t even feel like I was doing much. I think my body just took over my game, and I think I lost it a little bit as the games went on,” Joseph said this week. “But that’s what I like, and that’s what I wanted to bring back into my game this year. Just the enthusiasm of enjoying the game and enjoying the big stage of the NHL.”
After two games, Jospeh has, unfortunately, picked up where he left off instead of defaulting to the defenseman that had us excitedly looking to his future.
Saturday night, Joseph made a few ill-advised pinches and was a bad bounce away from giving up a three-on-one. Another ill-advised pinch was with a two-goal lead. He charged in thrice without help over top.
In training camp and in his first two games, Joseph was a mix of overly conservative and impetuous. His game swings to extremes rather than steady. He wasn’t “bad” on Saturday, but we know there’s more.
“He’s a good two way player. He defends well, he has good mobility, he’s got a long reach. (Joseph) has good offensive instincts. He can help us on a breakout, makes good output passes, joins the rush,” Mike Sullivan said last week. “(Joseph) is active on the offensive blue line. So we like his overall two way game.”
At 22-years-old and in his third professional season, Joseph is getting to the “show-me” stage. He’s had a couple professional seasons to begin to figure it out and the next 12 months will be critical to his outlook. He’s either going to be an NHL defenseman or not, sooner than later.
“He just needs to bring a little bit more consistency to his game. But we’re really excited about how far P.O’s game has come. He’s just a he’s a great kid, he’s a hard working guy. He loves hockey and he’s getting better. You know, he’s been he’s been knocking on the door here for for a while.”
That consistency issue has dogged more than a few NHL-worthy players. Without it, a defenseman is an untrusted depth defender. “He’s good and we’re excited,” becomes something like, “He’s talented, but…”
It’s the difference between playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins and WBS Penguins.
This isn’t the make or break chance for Joseph. Far from it. But it could have been a “make it” chance, just as training camp was, too. Sullivan already opened the door to reconfiguring the blue line when Joseph is ready–which this season would include moving someone out of the lineup or pushing (presumably) Brian Dumoulin to the right side.
Joseph has another week to stop thinking or reacting and to play the game–let his body take over and to show the Pittsburgh Penguins, not the WBS Penguins, what he can do.
Joseph has been knocking on the door, and now the door is open…but he needs to play better than the first two games.