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The Juuso Riikola saga is over in Pittsburgh

The Finnish defenseman is going back to Europe for next season

NHL: NOV 13 Penguins at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s not shocking news, but there is finality now about the long-lingering story about Juuso Riikola and his career status moving forward. The impending NHL free agent has signed with IK Oskarshamn of the Swedish Hockey League for 2022-23.

The twitter translation goes:

We have a new player to present! Juuso Riikola is ready for games in IK next season. Welcome to us Juuso! Read more about the transition on the website

It’s an ending that makes a lot of sense that Riikola would go back to Europe after his NHL prospects fizzled out with the Penguins over the past few years.

Riikola was the surprise of Pittsburgh’s fall 2018 training camp, where he somewhat unexpectedly played his way onto the NHL roster after a very strong preseason performance. Riikola got on the Pens’ radar back in 2017 being something of a late-bloomer as his game grew with his Finnish club team KalPa Kuopio from 2012-18. He was undrafted by the NHL, but impressed Pittsburgh’s European scout Tommy Westlund. Former Pens assistant GM Bill Guerin would also scout Riikola, including at the 2018 World Championships and Pittsburgh was able to sign Riikola at that point.

The 2018-19 season would be Riikola’s best in North America, he played 37 games for the Pens, recording two goals and three assists along the way. As the season went along though, he did not find a regular spot in the lineup in would what be a sign of things to come.

Riikola was a member of the NHL team for two full seasons in 2019-20 and 2020-21, but only appeared in 38 total games (36 in 2019-20, and just two in 2020-21) and often was on the outside of the lineup as a healthy scratch, and even occasionally was used as a fourth line forward when Pittsburgh had injury situations that required the temporary usage up front.

This past season in 2021-22, Riikola was a victim of roster numbers and salary cap space and spent most of the season with AHL Wilkes-Barre after clearing waivers. Riikola did play five games last year with NHL Pittsburgh, again only when necessitated due to injury/illnesses to the regular defenders.

Still just 28-years old, Riikola found himself largely in a professional purgatory for most of his stint in the Pens’ organization. While his game was decent or passable in many regards and he was also able to pop at times with a sharp offensive play here or there and being one of the few players to still employ a hip check, he was unable to ever gain traction or carve out a niche in the NHL.

A return to Europe makes a lot of sense, Riikola should thrive on the bigger ice surface like he did during the first portion of his career. It’s no shock he has signed early and decided to move on from the NHL chapter of his career. Switching leagues to sign in Sweden is a likely indicator that his services were in demand to play in the European leagues. Riikola’s NHL career didn’t quite make it on a huge level, but he gave it a shot and gained more experience along the way to probably set himself up for many more years of playing pro hockey closer to home.