The Pittsburgh Penguins just re-signed Juuso Riikola to a two-year deal. The deal has a cap hit topping $1 million, officially clocking in at $1.15 million. This inking has shocked Penguins fans. Many rumours have said that head coach Mike Sullivan was less than fond of Riikola. This, and the log-jam at left-defence, led many fans to simply assume that Riikola was going to find his way out of Pittsburgh.
But Riikola needs to play in Pittsburgh. The defensively-flawed Penguins have struck gold once again with Riikola. He’s the second-coming of John Marino — on pace to be a defensively-elite blue-liner.
Juuso Riikola Unique Role Needs Respect
Of course, things aren’t black-and-white. There really is a log-jam at left defence in Pittsburgh. They have four very capable defencemen in the proven Brian Dumoulin and Marcus Pettersson and then up-and-comers Pierre-Oliver Joseph and, of course, Juuso Riikola. There’s also.. uh.. Jack Johnson, who general manager Jim Rutherford and the coaching staff have all voiced praise for.
So the responsibility isn’t to simply show the strengths of Riikola’s play. It’s to earn him a spot on the lineup. Dumoulin is a clear-cut top-line name. He’s great, even despite some Penguins fans’ pessimism. Pettersson has also been terrific and well-deserving of the second line spot. So the only opening is on the third-line. And Riikola, Joseph, and.. uh.. Johnson will be fighting for it.
What Riikola Brings to the Table
There’s one way to perfectly envision Juuso Riikola: he’s a left-handed version of Marino. It’s, strangely, as easy as that.
Marino earned some nods for the Calder Trophy this season, thanks to his top-end ability in the defensive zone. While Penguins fans had the blessing of watching this first-hand, the rest of the league’s followers had to discover Marino’s terrifics through the help of advanced statistics. Despite being a rookie, Marino had the seventh-best xGA/60 (expected-goals-against per-60) of the entire league’s defencemen (minimum of 425 minutes played). That’s seventh among 209 defencemen and shows that Marino was better than just-about the entire NHL in limiting quality-shots among his opponents. By one of the best metrics of defensive prowess, Marino ranked fifth.
But Riikola… had the best xGA/60. He topped all 209 defencemen to play 425 minutes of 5v5 play. Above Marino and the advanced-stat-crazed Jonas Brodin. Riikola was sat atop, a jaw-dropping fact from the underutilized 26-year-old. A league-best xGA/60 and a perfectly-average xGF/60 (expected-goals-for per-60) combined to give Riikola the second-best xGF% (expected-goals percentage) of any defencemen in the league, behind only Vegas Golden Knights-phenom Shea Theodore.
Explaining the Phenomenon
There are plenty of statistical options to get the point across. RAPM charts, Goals-Above-Replacement metrics, and xG. But they all plead the same case: Riikola was terrific this season. As touched on, he had amazing xG tallies. He also had the best EVD/60 (even-strength-defence goals-above-replacement per-60) in the league, which is a bit more in-depth defensive metric, immediately followed by Marino in second place.
All of this very likely comes as a surprise to Penguins fans, though. Juuso Riikola didn’t blow the minds of anyone with his play. Unlike Marino managed, Riikola’s amazing defensive-performance wasn’t enough to force Sullivan’s hand into playing him. And in that lies the secret to Riikola’s amazing numbers.
While Riikola, somehow, played enough to really thwart any sample size-related concerns, the quality of his nearly-500 minutes of ice time is something to question. It’s normally not the best idea to try and break up ice time by quality. But with Riikola, the discrepancy is far too big to ignore.
No Quality, No Quantity
PuckIQ has great tools to help analyze the quality of a player’s opponents. They break down opposition into three categories: elite, middle, and “gritensity”. They can then record how much ice time each player recorded against the three levels of play. Nearly every player has a fairly even split — much more than most fans would expect — but Juuso Riikola was a bit of an outlier.
Eight Penguins defencemen played in at least 400 minutes of ice time. Among them, Riikola recorded the least amount of time against “Elite” competition. He also recorded the least amount of ice time against “Middle” opponents. Nearly all of his ice time came against “Gritensity” opposition. And while he didn’t lead the Penguins in raw “Gritensity” time-against, he did lead the team in terms of the percentage of one’s ice time against “Gritensity”.
This was a dramatic change from his rookie 2018-19 season. The percentage of Riikola’s ice time against the bottom-tier of opposition rose by over 20 percent this season. Coincidentally, so did all of Riikola’s advanced stats.
It’s Actually Not a Negative
This doesn’t sound good. Juuso Riikola was one of the least-challenged defencemen in the league. And if his rookie season metrics are anything to go by, Riikola is just-average when given a more typical deployment. He’s still an NHL-worthy defenseman but maybe not with Pittsburgh.
But what Riikola’s lack of challenge allowed was more responsibility to be given to his contemporaries. Brian Dumoulin continued his streak of facing nearly-only elite talent. Marcus Pettersson also had a notable jump in quality-of-opposition.
It’s a weird thing to say but Riikola is the absolute perfect third-pairing option. In the same vein as players like Chad Ruhwedel, Riikola is the perfect reliable-bottom-pair guy. In fact, given his top-end stats, there’s a fair argument to be made that Riikola is the most reliable bottom-pair guy. His amazing stats in the ‘laxed role gave the Penguins so much freedom to put more faith on their proven veteran and their burgeoning star (really, Pettersson is great).
Can Pierre-Oliver Joseph do the same thing in Riikola’s relaxed role? Yeah… well, maybe. He’s the closest thing to a top prospect that Pittsburgh has and deserves an NHL role on that fact alone. But he also didn’t look particularly amazing in the AHL this past season.
Joseph should be tried in the third-line role. For sure. But with Riikola proving he can be seriously impeccable this season, Joseph should have absolutely no wiggle room. He needs to outperform Riikola to hold on to the roster spot. And given Riikola’s league-best defence, Joesph would need to be a terror in the offensive zone to justify his play over Riikola.
So there is a situation where Riikola justly finds himself out of the lineup. Yes, he is really, really good but if the 21-year-old Joseph can break through and perform well, he should be tried over Riikola. But even in this world, Riikola absolutely can’t be used in the same way he was this year. He needs to be better respected by Pittsburgh. He put up some of the best statistics in the NHL this season and showed his worth. Riikola should be the first called in the case of an injury, a needed-rest, or just a typical shakeup; whether it be on the left or right side.
Oh, right, the Penguins also want to keep Johnson around. Well, more power to them. But it’s not at all called for.
Riikola is, clearly, the better option, even excluding any sort of supporting features. And replacing Johnson with Riikola isn’t going to change much. Among Penguins left defencemen, Johnson played the second-easiest role of anyone. Johnson’s minutes were easy enough to undoubtedly be filled by Riikola without sacrificing any of his amazing metrics.
Johnson is a great person but, with Riikola and Joseph demanding a roster role, his spot in Pittsburgh is long overdue. Riikola is a definite upgrade. Keeping Johnson over him would be a crime.
In the End
Riikola is a terrific talent. He may not have the opposition-numbers that some would expect but he’s still performed incredibly. The Penguins have netted a perfectly reliable blue-liner and deserves to be viewed as such by his team. His re-signing is a golden chance for Pittsburgh to embrace the strength of yet another undrafted star.