As the Penguins’ preseason has begun, some players are getting their shots at a spot on the final roster for the season opener on October 4th against the defending Stanley Cup champions. A lot of attention is going towards guys like Daniel Sprong and where he’ll fit in the lineup, how to deal with six natural centers on one-way contracts, and the very obvious competition of who will back up Matt Murray.
A storyline that is gaining attention is the play of free agent signing Juuso Riikola out of Finland’s top professional league. He has had a strong training camp thus far and registered a goal in the Penguins’ preseason opener.
Riikola is 24 years old, a left-handed shot, who is considered to be a two-way defenseman. His most prominent quality is a booming slap shot, which is a requirement for NHL defensemen nowadays. He is also a good skater and puck mover, and plays hard in the corners in his own end despite his smaller size at 6’0″ 189 pounds. The biggest question marks about him are his smaller stature and how he will hold up through the marathon of an 82-game season and his transition to the smaller NHL rink, where there is much less time to think and react.
Having fellow Finn Olli Maatta to help him along is another great situation. Maatta and Riikola were paired together in the preseason opener against Buffalo.
The signing of Jack Johnson set the Penguins top-six defensemen along with Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, Olli Maatta, and Jamie Oleksiak. Chad Ruhwedel, who is in the last year of his two-year deal, is thought to be the seventh defensemen.
The largest hurdle for Riikola to make the final roster is that all seven of these defensemen are under one-way contracts, so losing one to waivers would be a near-certainty. Even if Riikola continues to have a stellar preseason, general manager Jim Rutherford still may not want to lose out on a guy like Ruhwedel, who’s been a solid depth defenseman for the Penguins.
Riikola’s strong play could just bolster even more confidence in Rutherford and head coach Mike Sullivan when injuries do occur and he gets a chance to play.
One could argue that Riikola could be a game-changer. If his transition to the smaller rink is almost seamless, his style of play fits the Penguins system to a tee. Ruhwedel obviously understands the Penguins system, having played in it for two seasons now. But if Riikola’s style in the Penguins’ system is much more natural to the up-tempo style, he might just be the better fit for that seventh defensemen spot.
It’s still early in preseason with five more games to go. Riikola’s stock could continue to rise, making this storyline all the more intriguing, or his stock could fall making it irrelevant.