Though we provided some basic information and stats the day defenseman Juuso Riikola signed a one-year, entry-level contract with the Penguins, a proper scouting report of the undrafted 24-year-old was hard to come by. Apart from some high compliments from Finnish-centric Twitter pages and a few Hockey Prospectus articles by The Athletic’s prospect guru Corey Pronman that ranked him No. 220 out of 250 prospects in a class that contained tons of future stars like Jonathan Drouin, Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones, and Aleksander Barkov in its top five back in 2013, we don’t really know much about him.
But thanks to a phone conversation between The Athletic’s Seth Rorabaugh and Riikola’s former head coach Sami Kapanen (yes, that Kapanen family) and Corey Pronman responding when we reached out to him, we were gifted with some much-needed context of the newest Finn in the Pittsburgh organization.
A powerful slap shot
To be an elite defensemen in this league, ripping an accurate slap shot from the blue line has to be readily available in your arsenal. And if you want to be successful in the modern day NHL, one that’s beginning to value offensive skill at an unprecedented level, that skill needs to be nurtured and improved over a long period of time.
Skill is trumping size and grit, and it bodes well that Riikola possesses a canon — especially in a one-timer situation.
He’s fast on his feet and exhibits effortless skating
Riikola’s smaller stature is actually tailor-made for the direction the NHL is going in regard to speed and skill. He’s not a heavy-set guy, but he garners a lot of his power straight from his legs, which allows him to balance himself out on the ice and translate that to his skating.
Kapanen, a little too favorably, compared Riikola’s skating ability to that of Senators’ star defenseman Erik Karlsson. Obviously the two aren’t even in the same conversation, let alone the same universe, but Riikola’s fluidness on his skates is nothing to bat an eye at.
It’s also worth mentioning that he’s played on bigger ice his entire career. Riikola might be able to fly around with a little more ease in a smaller rink once he gets used to the size. He reportedly joins the rush, is capable of bringing the puck through the neutral zone, and can quarterback zone entries if called upon.
He can create space with his body, despite his size
Kapenen was adamant on driving home how Riikola is an excellent two-way player. In the same shift that he stuns an offensive push from his opponent, he’ll out-muscle the guys playing low in the zone to create space in the slot and hit twine. In 59 games this season, Riikola recorded 24 point (eight goals, 16 assists). That’ll be helpful in the dirty areas against rougher teams and rivalries.
Speaking of being a two-way player, Riikola is no stranger to blocking shots and sacrificing his body. He led his team on the penalty kill as well, and was the sole defenseman Kapanen went with if they were down on a 3-on-5 disadvantage. He provides a lot of initial, defensive zone pressure and pressure on the puck. This might calm all the folks screaming from their soap boxes about the mistake of trading Ian Cole away.
Riikola can play both the right and left side, even as a left-handed shot
As a left-handed defensemen, slotting into the left side comes naturally, but Riikola’s been used on the right side as well by his head coach, and he’s gone on record saying that he doesn’t care which side he’s put on, just that he hopes to have consistency. This is a minor issue, because Mike Sullivan tends to change around lines all the time. Maybe with more depth will come more stability.
A slow wind-up to his slap shot
Having a rocket for a shot is only as useful if you can actually get that shot off, and according to his coach, Riikola needs some much-needed speed in that department.
His 6-foot, 190-pound frame
I talked earlier about Riikola’s build, stating that as a smaller defenseman, he makes up for it in his excellent skating ability. Though Riikola is below Pittsburgh’s average team weight of 199.7 pounds, his strength-to-weight ratio doesn’t hinder his desire to play a physical game.
But with 15 other teams averaging a weight of more than 200 pounds, his stature can be a bit of a concern. He might not be getting pushed around in the Finnish pro league, but the NHL is a whole different animal.
Transitioning to a smaller, NHL-sized rink
Riikola’s head coach wasn’t very confident in the Finn getting used to playing on smaller ice in a short amount of time, as the Finnish pro league uses hyrbid-size ice (just a bit smaller than Olympic-size) on a regular basis.
However, he did mention that the junior-sized rink KalPa’s team practices on is measured at 26-meters, which is basically NHL-dimensions. Being that his gap coverage is great on a larger sheet of ice, his endurance is utilized with an average of 23:41 minutes of ice time per game often, and the fact that he’s a good skater, Riikola maybe he’ll evolve his game with ease. Camp will put these skills to the test, but it’ll be a tough transition.
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.
I know he’s often used on the penalty kill, but so was Carter Rowney. To be honest, a less-skilled depth guy doesn’t scream “Pittsburgh Penguin,” but, all things considered, Riikola could potentially be good for this team on the bottom pairings. If I’m to be honest though, it just seemed like Kapanen talked him up a bunch because he’s his coach, and a coach isn’t going to tell the media he sucks. Camp will be a huge opportunity for him to prove me wrong.
Pronman kind of said it best after we reached out to him: “He can move the puck fine and has become quicker since his amateur days, but he doesn’t have a ton of upside. Realistically, he’s a low-end of roster or depth guy if he makes it.”
If he makes it. We shall see.