Make it now nine NHL caliber defensemen on one-way contracts for 2019-20 now for the Pittsburgh Penguins, with the announcement today that Juuso Riikola is back for next, re-signing today with the Pens. From the team:
The Pittsburgh Penguins have re-signed defenseman Juuso Riikola to a one-year contract, it was announced today by executive vice president and general manager Jim Rutherford.
The one-way contract has an average annual value of $850,000.
”Juuso has adjusted to the North American style of hockey seamlessly,” said assistant general manager Bill Guerin. “He’s a very confident guy, and he’s also a great skater that moves the puck really well. We expect him to make an even bigger impact this year.”
Riikola made his NHL debut during the 2018-19 season on Oct. 11 against Vegas and played 37 games for Pittsburgh last season. During his rookie campaign he collected two goals, three assists and five points with a plus-three. His two goals were scored on the power play, with his first NHL goal standing as the game-winner on Dec. 29 in St. Louis. Pittsburgh went 22-10-5 with Riikola in the lineup last season.
Not sure I would agree with Guerin’s assessment: Riikola’s 45.2% Corsi For% was worst on the team this season, and he played his way out of the lineup and off of the whole NHL roster by March - a time the Pens’ defense was decimated with injuries no less. Riikola played no NHL games after March 2nd, and only 37 total on the season. If not for injuries (specifically to the broken leg Justin Schultz suffered early in the campaign) it’s a wonder how many times Riikola would have even gotten to play.
To make matters worse, Riikola slots clearly behind Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson, Olli Maatta, and Jack Johnson on the team’s depth chart for left handed, left-side defensemen. At least one of those players figures to be traded, with Johnson tied into the recent trade rumors with the Minnesota Wild in a deal that has fallen through.
The Pens also have Kris Letang, Schultz, Erik Gudbranson and the recently re-signed Chad Ruhwedel as right handed right-side defensemen, but that shouldn’t have much bearing on a player in Riikola who is limited enough to certainly stay on his strong side.
Still, defensive depth is important and it’s not like the Pens have much organization depth in the form of any reasonable prospects in the minors to make the jump to the NHL next season. Riikola’s contract means he still could be placed on waivers and assigned to the AHL if unclaimed, though he will be paid the same, full salary amount regardless of what league he is in.
The Pens don’t usually make a habit of paying a one-way salary for a player in the AHL, so this re-signing is a pretty clear sign they do have high hopes and he remains an important (depth) piece of the puzzle for 2019-20.