Pittsburgh Penguins: Despite Favorable Metrics, Juuso Riikola Continued To Struggle To Find Ice Time
|Photo Credit: Peter Diana/Post Gazette|
We continue our series of previewing the 2021 Pittsburgh Penguins by giving an analytical recap of the previous season. Today will feature Juuso Riikola.
With training camp rapidly closing in, and the regular season not too far behind, the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves working from a position of depth when it comes to the blue line.
Originally when Jim Rutherford signed Juuso Riikola to a two-year contract this offseason, the expectation was he would compete with Jack Johnson for playing time.
But once the team bought out Johnson, it appeared to clear the room needed for Riikola to finally get the playing time that some of his advanced numbers suggest he should be getting.
It might not be the scenario that Riikola, 27, had envisioned when coming over from Finland, especially after combing for 49 points over his last two seasons playing for Kalpa Kuopio in the SM-Liiga, but he has certainly made the most out of his limited playing time.
Riikola has just played in 73 of the potential 151 games over the two seasons he has spent with the Penguins, being a healthy scratch for the rest of them. He even appeared in a game as a forward, something he had never done before, when Pittsburgh found themselves short on healthy players.
In 73 career games, Riikola has posted three goals to go along with nine assists for 12 overall points. He often found himself on the outside looking in, when maybe he was a better option than Johnson, mainly due to the latter’s noted physicality.
Now with Johnson moving on to the New York Rangers, Mike Sullivan can take advantage of Riikola’s surprisingly strong defensive metrics.
Riikola: 2019-2020 By The Numbers
The Finish blue liner registered a career high six assists last season for the Penguins, doubling his total from the year before.
As you can see that was reflected in Riikola actually being a respectable playmaker compared to his peers last season. Outside of that, he didn’t produce much in the offensive zone on his own, although his expected goal rate was also closer to elite status.
Where Riikola made the most damage was eliminating his opponent’s scoring opportunities, as in the small sample size of him playing, analytically he was one of the best defensive defensemen in the league.
Despite posting one of the worst GF/60 rate in the league, Riikola’s actual goal share was over the 90th percentile. When it comes to his xGA/60 and his expected goal share, no one else posted better numbers than Riikola.
He also finished near a perfect rating in high danger opportunities, and goals, as well as his on ice save percentage.
So why has Sullivan seemed so against playing Riikola? Despite his amazing defensive metrics, Riikola can also bomb out on the eye-test, committing some frustrating blunders that has cost him ice time.
While that can also be said about Johnson, the guy who received the majority of the potential playing time, Riikola did so in enough big moments that they stick out more with less of a sample size.
Even so, the Penguins enter the season with at least eight NHL defensemen under contract. Thanks to the pandemic, it doesn’t look like there will be an American Hockey League season, at least to start. In the mean time, if teams get to use an expanded roster, that will allow Pittsburgh to house all defensemen.
Also, with the uncertainty behind the pandemic, depth will be all the more key, in the case a player needs to miss time at any point during the season.
Riikola will have to compete with Matheson for playing time, but with the cap hit that the latter brings with him, it would be hard to imagine a scenario where he sits much.
Signing Riikola to the multi-year deal they did was strange when it first happened, and became even more so once they traded for Matheson. It may work out this year in their favor as they adjust to playing during the pandemic in a more open settings.
However, unless something happens, it will be hard to see a scenario in which Riikola doesn’t do much more than sit in the press box this season.
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