The Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t had a niche for finding young quality defenseman in recent years, but they might have found one in 24-year-old Juuso Riikola. He was signed as a free agent in May 2018.
Not a lot of people knew who he was and what kind of impact he could make down the line. This preseason, Riikola is turning heads. He has scored two goals in four preseason games and has taken seven shots.
Juusa Riikola is a strong defenseman and he can also skate through traffic. Riikola made another round of roster cuts and there are currently 27 players on the Pittsburgh Penguins roster. Only 22 make the roster.
There are two preseason games left and they are against the Buffalo Sabres at home on Wednesday night and the Columbus Blue Jackets on the road on Friday night. Pittsburgh will open up the season next Thursday night at home against the Washington Capitals. Will Riikola be on the opening night roster for the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Well even though he has played this preseason, I can’t imagine him replacing Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta, or Kris Letang. I would say maybe Riikola could play over Jack Johnson, but they invested a lot of money into him.
The only realistic option could be Jamie Oleksiak, but he was just signed to a contract extension as well. At best, Juuso Riikola could be the seventh defenseman and be a healthy scratch most nights, but that is not the nature of head coach Mike Sullivan and the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.
Players like Riikola need to be developing in the minors to start the season. He could get his game reps with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at the AHL level. If Riikola dominates down there early in the season, the Pittsburgh Penguins organization will have an interesting to make.
Could they shop Olli Maatta or Kris Letang? I don’t think it would happen, but you never know. Even if Juuso Riikola starts the season in the minors, injuries will come along at some point and he will get called up. What happens if he starts to tear it up? Riikola might be a player that can’t be taken out of the lineup and this could be an interesting season for the Pittsburgh Penguins on the blue line.
Riikola played for KalPa (Liiga) last season and it was on a bigger ice surface. In 59 games, he scored eight goals and recorded 16 assists. His plus/minus was -9. In six-playoff games, Juuso Riikola recorded one assist and his plus/minus was 1.