Penguins & Riikola: Destined From the Beginning

Juuso Riikola is the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie that no one saw coming. He stunned fans, coaches, and analysts alike by playing in all six of the team’s preseason games, and notching two goals and two assists, tying him for the team scoring lead. Despite his efforts, many did not expect Riikola to make the final roster, nor to see game action barring a top-D-man’s long-term injury. While Riikola is still considered a “relative unknown,” his past Pittsburgh connections show he may not have been such a surprise choice after all.

Finnish Beginnings

Riikola was born in Joensuu, Finland on Nov. 9, 1993. He began playing for Finland’s Saimaan Pallo (SaiPa) U16 team during the 2007-08 season when he was 14 years old. He stayed with the SaiPa club for two seasons, before joining the Kalevan Pallo (KalPa) U16 team in the Jr. C SM-sarja and Jr. C SM-sarja Q leagues in 2009-10. Both clubs wear black and yellow uniforms, the first sign of things to come.

Though he wasn’t the most buzzworthy young Finnish player, Riikola’s play was solid and his stats improved as his games-played total rose. He moved up to KalPa’s U18 and U20 teams in 2010-11. That same year, Riikola represented his country for the first time with Finland’s International Junior U18 team, playing alongside future Penguins 2012 draft pick, Olli Maatta. This was the first of many times that Maatta and Riikola would play together, before and after reaching Pittsburgh.

Connor McDavid, Olli Maatta, World Cup of Hockey, NHL, Hockey
Team Finland’s Maatta defends against Team North America’s Connor McDavid. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)

Graduating to the Finnish Elite League

Rikkola moved up to KalPa’s Liiga, or the Finnish Elite League level, at the start of the 2012-13 season. At age 19, he played concurrently for the U20 and Liiga teams, dressing for a total of 34 games and earning 11 points overall. He was qualified to play for Finland at the 2013 Ice Hockey U20 World Championships in Russia. Though Finland placed seventh in the tournament, Rikkola contributed one assist in six games and shared the ice once again with his friend and future defensive partner Olli Maatta.

In 2013-14, Riikola began a steady transition out of the age-defined leagues, playing 54 games for the KalPa liiga, and only six games for the U20 squad. He was awarded the alternate captain “A” for KalPa in 2015-16, an honor he held for his final three seasons with the club.

Of his own play, Riikola told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jonathan Bombulie:

“I focus on what I need to do on the ice … I don’t think too much like who is watching or those things,” (from ‘Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola earns rave reviews for NHL debut’, Tribune-Review – 10/12/18).

Perhaps this type of focus and the additional leadership responsibility was what he needed to elevate his game. Following his appointment, Riikola played three straight 50-plus-game seasons and had career highs in goals (8) and assists (16). Despite exceeding expectations, Riikola’s name still was not common in NHL prospect circles.

In 2016-17, KalPa advanced to the league finals against Tampereen Tappara for the first time in Riikola’s career. He played in 18 games and contributed seven points in the team’s silver-medal run.

The 2017-18 season brought Riikola to the world stage with Team Finland for the Euro Hockey Tour (EHT) and the IIHF World Championships. Finland earned the gold medal at the EHT and came in fifth place at the World Championships.

NHL Draft Woes

After turning 18 in November 2011, Riikola was eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft, which was held at PPG Paints Arena, formerly Consol Energy Center, in Pittsburgh. Only a few players in each draft will be selected to stay in the host city and play for the home team. In 2012, the Penguins drafted Matt Murray, Derrick Pouliot, Oskar Sundqvist, and Riikola’s former teammate and countryman Olli Maatta, but, like the other 29 teams in the league, passed on Riikola. It seemed as though Riikola’s Pittsburgh connections would end with dashed draft dreams, but the links were far from finished.

Derrick Pouliot, Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL, Stanley Cup
Derrick Pouliot played three seasons with the Penguins before being traded to Vancouver. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Riikola was overlooked in four straight entry drafts. From 2012-15, the Penguins, under general managers Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford, chose to draft many centers and wingers, including Riikola’s fellow Finn and KalPa teammate Kasperi Kapanen in 2014. Kasperi is not the only Kapanen who has a connection to both Riikola and the Penguins’ management. His father, Sami Kapanen, was Riikola’s coach during his time with KalPa. Sami also played for the Hartford Whalers and Carolina Hurricanes during their Rutherford eras. This Penguins’ thread would prove to be one of the more important ones that brought Riikola to town.

Penguins Connections Come Full Circle

We’ll never know for sure if it was Riikola’s explosive play during the 2017-18 season, his deep Penguins connections, or both that brought him to the attention of Penguins’ European scout Tommy Westlund. Westlund himself had ties to the Kapanens and Rutherford before becoming a Penguins scout. He was drafted to the Hurricanes under Rutherford and was Sami Kapanen’s teammate there. Good intel from old friends could have been just what Riikola needed to get the NHL recognition he was due.

On May 18, 2018, Riikola inked a one-year, entry-level deal with the Penguins for a reported $925,000. Despite his breakout preseason start, many doubted Riikola would make the final team roster, and reporters like the Trib’s Bombulie noted that, with Riikola’s lack of North American playing experience, he would be better suited for time with the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins in the AHL to learn the ropes. Bombulie also noted Riikola could fill the seventh-defenseman slot ahead of two-year team vet Chad Ruhwedel, who has yet to see game action this season.

The Penguins Chad Ruhwedel has yet to see action in five games this season. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Riikola not only made the opening-night roster, which included eight defensemen, but he was the only rookie to do so. What’s more, he got his first NHL start just three games into the season with a home win on Oct. 11 against the Vegas Golden Knights. His slotting into the lineup didn’t come from an injury, as most had predicted, but rather the poor performance of Olli Maatta.

Now, with Justin Schultz’s long recovery ahead, Riikola appears to be a mainstay in the defensive pairings for the foreseeable future, partnering with Jack Johnson, Jamie Oleksiak, and Maatta on the second and third pairings. Thanks to his rookie status, if Riikola continues to awe with quick defensive moves and offensive tricks, he could be an outside contender to win the Calder Trophy. Only time will tell, but coming out of nowhere to surprise people seems to be what Riikola does best.