It’s hard to question anything Mike Sullivan does. His track record speaks for itself. Two Stanley Cup championships in his first three seasons. Getting the most out of his star players. He is already on a fast track towards coaching lure.
This leads me to wonder why I’m questioning his decision to sit Olli Maatta in favor of Jusso Riikola on Thursday when the Penguins take on the Vegas Golden Knights.
Surely, Maatta has been nothing short of a train wreck through the first two games as he has played with Jack Johnson. I didn’t like the decision to take Maatta off of a pair with Justin Schultz in the first place. Maatta had been playing some of the best hockey of his career towards the end of last season.
Everyone is excited to see what Riikola can bring to the team. The coaching staff raved about his preseason performance. He did well enough to stay in Pittsburgh even after Brian Dumoulin returned from injury. You almost have to wonder if the Penguins are too excited to see what Riikola can bring.
If Riikola does play well enough to warrant a full-time spot, decisions then have to be made. The Penguins have a vast majority of their cap space tied up in their top-six defenseman. Riikola currently counts for $925,000 against the cap. None of the Penguins top-six accounts for less than $2,137,500 and that would be Jamie Oleksiak. The Penguins could use that space, and logically Maatta seems to be the most logical to trade given age and value.
Obviously, these are hypothetical. Remember, Riikola is about to play his first meaningful game on North American ice. He has shown a fast grasping of the game, but he is still in the adjustment period. The Penguins did want him to see game time, though, as he wasn’t going to grow watching games from the press box.
It is rather shocking that Sullivan didn’t try mixing up the pairings. From the outset, it seemed Maatta-Schultz and Oleksiak-Johnson made the most sense. Maatta had two very bad games playing with a new member of the team. He is much better than the defenseman he has been early in this season.
If Maatta is in the Penguins’ long-term plans, you almost have to figure he should get some time to sort things out. Especially if he is going to stay with Johnson.
He is almost a full year younger than Riikola and has 304 regular season games under his belt. Riikola is just starting his transition to the NHL. Maatta seems to be getting the short end of the stick. But as I said earlier, if the Penguins were going to keep Riikola, they’d better be playing him or send him to WBS to really acclimate himself.
It’s hard to question Sullivan’s moves because time after time he has been right and this could turn out to be just another instance. But two games into the season after Maatta played a full-season for the first time last year and played some of his best hockey at the end of last year?
Again, we’ll let it play out but it’s fair to have your doubts.