The Pittsburgh Penguins re-signed slick skating rookie defenseman Juuso Riikola to a one-year deal Thursday, according to GM Jim Rutherford. Riikola was a restricted free agent after signing a one-year entry-level contract last summer to make the move from Finland to North America. The undrafted free agent chose the Penguins and was the hit of training camp as he made the team.
Riikola, 25, played in only 37 NHL games last season but remained on the Penguins roster until March before the Penguins sent him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to get more consistent playing time. The 6-foot, 189-pound defender had five points (2g, 3a) in the NHL and two points in five games in the AHL.
Riikola’s speed and agility allowed him to help the Penguins fill the gap on the right side of their defense in the absence of Justin Schultz. The Penguins mixed and matched defenders for most of the season until Schultz returned in February. Riikola eventually found a comfortable pairing with fellow Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta.
“Juuso has adjusted to the North American style of hockey seamlessly,” said assistant general manager Bill Guerin. “He’s a very confident guy, and he’s also a great skater that moves the puck really well. We expect him to make an even bigger impact this year.”
Riikola cost the Pittsburgh Penguins $1.7 million against the salary cap this season because of an $850,000 bonus and his $925,000 salary, according to CapFriendly.com. He also gave one of the best answers of the season when asked if he would make the team in training camp, “why not,” he deadpanned.
Sources told Pittsburgh Hockey Now a deal was expected this week but it wasn’t known until Thursday if the deal would have a multi-year component. Sources also said the Penguins have not begun negotiations with other RFAs Marcus Pettersson and Zach Aston-Reese.
Riikola played six seasons with KalPa in the Finnish Elite league. He made his professional debut in Finland as a 19-year old in 2012-13. In 283 career games with KalPa, Riikola scored 89 points (26g, 63a).
Riikola did not play in the 2019 World Championships but did join the country for the 2018 Worlds.