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Can Juuso Riikola make the Penguins out of camp?

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The main question for the surprise story in Pens camp

NHL: Preseason-Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Finnish defenseman Juuso Riikola has been on the Pittsburgh Penguins radar for a while now.

From the PG, Pens assistant general manager Bill Guerin went to Finland in February and liked what he saw live in person.

As early as warmup, Guerin smiled at the sight of what the Penguins’ European scouts had been telling for months: Riikola, a 24-year-old who made his pro debut at 19, can absolutely play.

“He’s a really confident kid, carries himself well,” Guerin gushed after Riikola shined in the Penguins’ 7-3 preseason victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday at PPG Paints Arena

“Our European scouts,” Guerin continued, “they’re a good group. They know what they’re doing.”

And with that, the wheels were set in motion. Riikola was signed to a one-year entry level contract in May (term set due to his advanced age for signing a first NHL contract). In a way, Riikola was taking the spot of the organization’s 50 contracts another older European defenseman prospect in Lukas Bengtsson, who was on his way back to Sweden after two injury/illness plagued seasons in the AHL.

Pittsburgh may have found more of an impact player this time around out of Europe.

Jesse Marshall at The Athletic highlighted a bunch of instances already where Riikola has showcased some great skill, naturally it’s well worth the read.

The lateral angle that Riikola takes on his approach in this sequence really handcuffs the recipient of this outlet pass. When I call Riikola an aggressive player, these are the incidents that add up to earn that description. Riikola doesn’t just fall into line here and protect the red line, he identifies an opportunity to make prevent offense before it has the opportunity to matriculate. This isn’t an example of physicality for the sake of it, this is using the body with the intent to prevent a breakout. This physical approach to the game has caught the eye of head coach Mike Sullivan.

“What really surprised me was his willingness to embrace the physical aspect of the game,” Sullivan said. “He’s not afraid to stick his nose in battles. He’s done a great job in that regard.”

Riikola has played all four of the Penguins preseason games to date. In addition to impressing Sullivan with his two-way play, he’s scored two goals. One of them was this one, and even against preseason competition it’s about impossible to do this and not turn heads:

He’s the only member of the team to play every game. After recent cuts have taken the team down to nine defensemen, Riikola is still in Pittsburgh.

“One of the reasons that we tried to go after [Riikola] as aggressively as we did,” coach Mike Sullivan said last week, “is that we believe he’s one of those types of defensemen that can play the game we’re trying to play. He’s a mobile guy. He’s a good puck-mover.”

Riikola’s making a strong, serious push to stay. But he has a huge, and unavoidable impediment to staying in the NHL. What is it? Well, a picture from capfriendly tells the whole story:

The Penguins have six highly paid defensemen under contract. They’re not going to want to scratch Jamie Oleksiak, and free agent signing Jack Johnson won’t start the 2018-19 season where he ended the 2018 playoffs (as a healthy scratch) because that just doesn’t make sense either. Save an injury, there’s just no open avenue for Riikola to get into the top six.

Which leads to a difficult decision. Should the Pens keep Riikola as their 7th defenseman, which would sacrifice the perfectly serviceable Chad Ruhwedel to the waiver wire? One big advantage of sending Riikola down is he doesn’t require waivers, plus he could actually be playing in the AHL to gain more experience instead of sitting in the press box for games.

Another option would be keeping eight defensemen, usually a non-starter for NHL teams who don’t like the extra body around for practice purposes (screws up the usual drill routine). Plus the Penguins might need to keep 14 forwards with a numbers crunch in that realm, which would push that out too. Keeping eight defense seems unpalatable at best, and needless extra at that.

Either way, whether Riikola can somehow make the NHL team out of camp or not, Riikola’s training camp has been a smash hit and is a huge success. The organization now has some unexpected extra depth and that’s also a good thing.

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.

For a training camp with most of the job already locked up, Riikola’s exciting and star-making performance has been a very interesting and notable storyline. No matter what happens this should be a player that factors into Pittsburgh’s season before too long.