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Juuso Riikola’s long and winding path to the NHL

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Against all odds the 24-year has “come from no where” to make the Penguins roster. Yet, it’s hardly “no where” that he has been

NHL: Preseason-Buffalo Sabres at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Against perhaps all odds and early projections, Juuso Rikola has done it. He’s made the Penguins 23-man roster out of training camp. And while it seems like the 24-year old has come out of no where to land on one of the most competitive rosters assembled in all of hockey, it’s hardly been an overnight success story.

A timeline back on where the heck this guy came from:

2010-11: after spending teenage years in Junior-C level competition, Riikola has his first truly important season as a 17-year old. He spends most of the season at the Junior A level for the Finnish team KalPa, the team he will be with up until 2018. Riikola also gets his first meaningful taste of representing his country, playing for Finland in the Under-18 team. His teammates here include future NHLers in Markus Granlund, Rasmus Ristolainen, Joel Armia, Ville Pokka ....and Olli Maatta.

2011-12: Another full season in the Finland Junior-A league for KalPa, and a step up to the U-20 Finnish team (though Riikola does not play in the World Junior Championship showcase)

Summer 2012: Riikola, barely a blip on the radar, goes undrafted in the NHL for the first year he is eligible. His countryman Maatta is selected in the first round (22nd overall) by the Penguins after two solid seasons with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Another Riikola peer, Pokka, is taken 34th overall by the New York Islanders.

2012-13: Huge year, Riikola plays 20 games for KalPa in the SM-Liiga, the top men’s league in Finland, with only 14 games in Junior-A. He also represents Finland in the U-20 WJC (0 goals, 1 assist in 6 games). He is again teammates with Maatta, Ristolainen and Pokka, among many other future NHLers.

USA Hockey Junior Evaluation Camp - USA v Finland

(A picture of Maatta at a Finnish camp of this era, doesn’t seem to be any in our photo editor of Riikola but he would have been here!)

Summer 2013: Despite cracking the Liiga and playing on FInland’s WJC team, Riikola goes undrafted again in the NHL as an overager. Riikola’s former Finnish teammate Ristolainen is selected in the first round, all the way up at 8th overall by the Buffalo Sabres.

2013-14: Riikola plays 54 games in the Liiga for KalPa, basically cementing himself as a regular in his country’s top league at 20-years old.

Summer 2014: As a non-North American player, despite being over 20 years old, Riikola is still eligible for the NHL draft. He again goes undrafted.

2014-15: Riikola only plays 40 games for KalPa in the Liiga, but his previous season-high was 6 points. He is 21-years old now and a much bigger part of the team putting up current career-highs in goals (6), assists (8) and points (14).

Summer 2015: As a non-North American player, despite being over 20 years old, Riikola is still eligible for the NHL draft. The Pens select a 21-year old from Europe in the 5th round. It’s Dominik Simon.

2015-16: Riikola is wearing the “A” as alternate captain for KalPa. He has another solid season scoring 5 goals and adding 10 assists.

2016-17: A career year for Riikola statistically, with 26 points (6g+19a in 59 games). Also plays 18 playoff games as KalPa makes the finals in the playoffs, but loses.

Sometime 2017: Riikola gets on the radar of Pens Euro scout Tommy Westlund, who reports back to the front office strongly after seeing Riikola play “four or five times” and having some talks with KalPa coach Sami Kapanen.

February 2018: Pittsburgh assistant GM Bill Guerin is in Europe and takes in a KalPa game to see Riikola for himself. Guerin walks away impressed.

May 2018: Riikola plays for Finland in the World Championships for the first time. The Penguins sign him to a one-year entry level contract (which is their only option due to his age) for the maximum level of $925,000.

This report seemed hopeful at the time, but proved to look very accurate after an impressive camp to come months later:

Pensburgh gives a scouting report on Riikola including a smart-sounding conclusion of:

If we’re being realistic, Riikola’s chances aren’t looking that great, but he might surprise us. He has a decent shot (even if his backswing is too slow) that, if it avoids net-front traffic, could really add another element to the Penguins’ blue line.

September 2018: Riikola becomes the unexpected surprise story in NHL training camp, impressing in every game he played and getting the opportunity to play in all 6 of the Pens preseason games due to playing so well.

“I think everyone on the staff knew how good he was going to be,” Maatta said. “I haven’t seen him play in a long time, but from what everyone was telling me back home, he was playing really, really well.”

And the good times kept rolling with probably the most eye-popping highlight for the team in preseason.

By September 25th he had played so well, it was time to ask the question: Can Juuso Riikola make the Penguins out of training camp?

Even if Riikola is sent to Wilkes-Barre at the conclusion of training camp — which despite his best efforts still seems the most likely and smartest outcome— that doesn’t mean he will be gone forever. Given the injury history of some of the Pens defensemen (casts watchful eye at Kris Letang and Olli Maatta), being #7 on the depth chart in Pittsburgh has often meant a sizeable amount of playing time. That could well be the case again this year and Riikola could see significant time in Pittsburgh over the course of the season even if there’s no space for him right off the bat.

And again with a performance that no doubt was trending up.

The 24-year-old defender signed out of Finland over the summer has been given a close look by Penguins’ brass this preseason, playing by far the most minutes of any player on the roster.

He has not wasted them.

He’s shown a physical side, he’s shown an offensive side, and he has done everything he could have possibly done to not only earn a roster spot, but also earn real playing time.

The biggest thing working against him: The six defenders ahead of him that are all signed to long-term contracts that are almost certainly going to be ahead of him on the depth chart

And what do you know, on Friday September 28th, Brian Dumoulin suffers a minor lower-body injury in the final preseason game against Columbus. He doesn’t practice Saturday or Monday and in large part of that the team needs to keep an extra defenseman.

And who is in line to take Dumoulin’s place and become the “over night” success story to step into the NHL?

***

Also, as an aside and to tie up mentions, remember a name way at the top, Ville Pokka? The high pick spent four seasons in the AHL from 2014-18. He was drafted by NYI but quickly traded to Chicago as a part of the deal that sent Nick Leddy to New York. Pokka didn’t get into any NHL games, was traded to Ottawa’s organization in 2018 and left as a free agent to sign in the KHL for this 2018-19 season with Avangard Omsk. Just goes to show you never quite know what long and winding path at age 17 as to which player should be a high pick, and which player by age 24 could be the one to develop into NHL caliber.

Other “where are they nows” you already know; Maatta and Ristolainen have become top-4 regular NHL players for the teams that drafted them in much easier paths to trace and take.

It wasn’t so simple for Juuso Riikola but a diamond in the rough who waited and had to work for years to get a chance to make it to where he finds himself today. Soon the rest of the league will be wondering “who the hell is Juuso Riikola” but luckily for Pittsburgh fans Tommy Westlund and Bill Guerin and Jim Rutherford were first to the scene.