It feels weird to question the moves and decisions Mike Sullivan has made, especially given how well he has managed the Penguins this season. Sullivan is a front runner for the NHL’s coach of the year award, and deservedly so. However, there was a very interesting choice he made last night against Philadelphia. With the return of Justin Schultz to the lineup from injury, Sullivan elected to make Juuso Riikola a healthy scratch and keep Chad Ruhwedel in the lineup.
On the surface that looked to be an awkward decision. Ruhwedel and Schultz made up the team’s third pair against the Flyers. Both are right handed, meaning the ever-rare right shot playing the left side was in effect. The left shooting Riikola was left in the press box.
And, even worse than making a questionable decision is when it doesn’t go well, that opens up the Monday (Saturday?) morning quarterbacking. And that’s what we have here.
Ruhwedel was just a 35.29% Corsi For% on the night (6 for, 11 against) at 5-on-5 play, per Natural Stat Trick. He was on ice for just one scoring chance for, compared to four against (20%) in just over 12 minutes of play at 5v5. Schultz wasn’t much better at 36.35 CF% and a 30% scoring chances% while picking up a few more shifts at 16:23 5v5 time. The unnatural and new pairing was disjointed and a big factor as to why Philadelphia tipped the ice for most the night.
What makes it an even more ponderous personnel choice is that Riikola has vastly outperformed Ruhwedel this season, in addition to the fact that playing Riikola would offer the preferred left hand - right hand pairing had he dressed instead of Ruhwedel and played as Schultz’s partner. Here’s how the SKATR chart between the two look:
Shirey Sports had a really good blog post yesterday detailing Riikola’s advanced metric success this season in reference in part to the above chart:
There’s a few things that stand out to me from this chart. The first of them being that Riikola and Ruhwedel have almost identical deployment this season. They both log very few minutes of time on ice, they have both played with fourth liners for the majority of their minutes while also seeing very few tough matchups against the other team. They also start very few of their shifts in the defensive zone.
Despite the very similar deployment, they have vastly different on-ice results at 5v5. Ruhwedel is in just the second percentile of the NHL at creating quality shot attempts relative to the rest of his team. Riikola finds himself in the 44th percentile. That’s a huge gap in offensive production.
Riikola ranks in the 94th percentile in the NHL at suppressing quality shot attempts against relative to his teammates, which is quite impressive considering that the Penguins have been one of the league’s top defensive teams all season. Ruhwedel finds himself in the 72nd percentile of the same category, but it’s clear that Riikola’s impacts on the game are far more positive.
Here’s how Riikola stacks up against other Penguins blueliners with at least 100 minutes of ice time at 5v5:
Corsi for percentage: 52.07% (4th out of 8)
Expected goals for percentage: 57.55% (1st out of 8)
Goals for percentage: 60.00% (1st out of 8)
Scoring chances for percentage: 56.32% (2nd out of 8)
High danger chances for percentage: 58.16% (1st out of 8)
Part of Riikola’s success can no doubt be chalked up to favorable usage and sheltered play. The point being made isn’t to suggest that Riikola actually IS one of the Pens’ best one or two defenseman — but rather that Riikola has performed very well in the limited role he has been given.
Further, it’s totally fair and accurate to say that Riikola has produced MUCH better results this season than Ruhwedel has.
That leaves the natural question — why did Sullivan play Ruhwedel and leave Riikola sitting?
Obviously, an NHL coach isn’t going to just hold up a SKATR chart and make lineup decisions with no other input or context, otherwise, it’s pretty cut and dry and anyone could perform those tasks. But we do know that the Pens consider in-house advanced metrics when they’re considering lineup decisions. Yet, this decision simply has to fly in the face of all of that.
About the only factual input to consider for this decision is that Ruhwedel is 29 years old. He’s been in the NHL pretty much continuously since 2017, and all with Sullivan and Pittsburgh. Though a lot of that time has been spent as a healthy scratch or depth situation, this is a player the coach knows and one who is integrated with the team. Ruhwedel has an NHL career resume of 157 games, with over 120 with Sullivan. In other words, he’s built up some trust and has a bit of a track record that Sullivan can count on, or one that Sullivan perceives he can count on.
Riikola, 26, has only appeared in 65 career NHL games. That might not sound like a ton but 157 vs. 65 is a decided advantage and reason Sullivan may want Ruhwedel over Riikola. (Note - a reason doesn’t necessarily make for a GOOD reason).
So while it can be easily argued the more inexperienced Swede has had a finer season than Ruhwedel, Sullivan’s choice to play Ruhwedel might be as simple as going with a player with more experience at this level and who has been in his system longer. Riikola isn’t exactly a stranger since he’s been with the Pens since the start of the 2018-19 season, is a fair counter-point, though one that Sullivan clearly didn’t give a lot of weight towards.
Again, it’s tough to second guess Sullivan’s choices because no one is more plugged in or making better choices about the squad than he is. It looked weird to shift Bryan Rust to the left wing and promote Patric Hornqvist to play on that Evgeni Malkin last night and Hornqvist rewarded that by creating a primary assist on the Pens’ opening goal on the night. That one also seemed a bit questionable but paid dividends. Also, who plays what wing is often not that big of a deal since hockey is a fluid game and it really doesn’t matter a ton. Which “D” plays which side is a much more important positional detail.
And again, if for nothing else than the LH/RH combination — to say nothing of a modest dive into advanced stats — it would make more sense to go Riikola/Schultz rather than Ruhwedel/Schultz as a RH/RH third pair.
With that in mind, and an uneven performance, it’ll be interesting to see if Sullivan flips it up or gives his original idea more time to marinate. It’s clear Sullivan has Ruhwedel as higher on the depth chart than Riikola, but plainly other than for pure experience there isn’t a ton of reason for why he should feel that way. Brian Dumoulin remains out, so for left handed defensemen the Pens have just Marcus Pettersson, Jack Johnson and Riikola healthy.
Juuso Riikola is having a pretty solid season, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good reason to play Chad Ruhwedel out of position over him. There’s some truth in that if the coach’s worst decision is who he favors as a sixth defenseman then things aren’t that bad, and they aren’t. Especially since Dumoulin will eventually return and hopefully render it moot.
But given how the Pens’ defense is often injured, it’s possible — if not likely — that their seventh defensemen will play a role down the stretch. That Sullivan favors Ruhwedel over Riikola, despite positional and advanced metrics telling him not to says a bit about where the coach is right now. He could change his mind in the days or weeks to come, but this was an interesting decision made that appeared to put the Pens in a worse position than they needed to be.