Juuso Riikola more comfortable in 2nd season with the Penguins
Casey DeSmith had an unwanted task during last year’s training camp.
The Penguins backup goaltender became a chauffeur.
His only client was an out-of-towner on a business trip who wasn’t all that familiar with the area — or the entire continent, for that matter: Juuso Riikola.
“I hung out with Jusso quite a bit last fall because were both kind of on the bubble, in the hotel together,” DeSmith said. “And he didn’t really know many people. I don’t even know if he had a car. So I was giving him rides and stuff.”
The native of Joensuu, Finland, was getting his first taste of North America last September as an undrafted free agent. With few expectations, he had a strong preseason and earned a spot on the NHL roster out of training camp. As a rookie, he experienced a disjointed regular season, appearing in 37 games and scoring five points (two goals, three assists).
He enters the 2019-20 season with a greater level of familiarity with his foreign surroundings and more concrete expectations.
“When I came last year, I didn’t come here to play AHL or anything else,” Riikola, 25, said. “I came here, and my main point was to play (in) the NHL. The same as this year.
“Now, I’ve been here one year. All the places and where to go, it’s easier. Where you need to be, when you need to leave from home, where is the airport and all that. You don’t need to think about those things. I think that’s the big thing.”
A big part of Riikola’s game is shooting. Coach Mike Sullivan regularly compliments Riikola for his ability to put the puck on net.
“You have (a) chance, you need to shoot all the time,” Riikola said. “But the (defenders) are so good at coming in the lane. Sometimes you can’t shoot. You have to pass. Or try a redirection. But every time you have a chance to shoot, I try to shoot.”
Riikola took that chance on Saturday during a 3-1 preseason loss at Columbus. He scored the team’s only goal by blistering a one-timer from the left point to the far side past goaltender Joonas Korpisalo’s glove during the first period.
“He’s got a bomb,” Sullivan said. “He can really shoot the puck from the blue line. The goal he scored in Columbus is an example of that. He can utilize it more, especially on the power play but also coming off that offensive blue line five on five.”
Riikola’s ability to hit is his other calling card. During a 6-5 overtime win Oct. 23 at Edmonton, Riikola (6-foot, 189 pounds) tagged massive power forward Milan Lucic (6-3, 231) early in the contest. Lucic spent the remainder of the game trying to get a measure of retribution by targeting Riikla repeatedly.
This preseason, particularly during games against the Sabres and Red Wings, Riikola has thrown his body around liberally and agitated the opposition in the process.
“I don’t know what they were trying to do,” Riikola said of those opponents who have tried to retaliate after his hits. “You don’t need to look for big hits. Same thing with the shots: When you have the chance, you can hit. But you need to hit when you try to get (the) puck out of their hands. But you don’t if they have passed already.”
After the arrival of defenseman Erik Gudbranson via trade in February and the return of several injured defensemen to the lineup in March, Riikola was a regular healthy scratch and was sent to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to get some playing time. Injuries limited him to five games and two assists with the AHL Penguins, but Riikola valued the assignment because it furthered his development.
“I think it was good because there was a time I didn’t play (with the NHL team),” Riikola said. “I went there and played five games then I got injured. But those games that I played, I played a lot. And that’s the best thing you can do. Or (you can’t play) and you can work out and watch the game. That’s not so good. Definitely a good thing to get a lot of minutes and play there.”
If Tuesday’s practice in Cranberry was any indication, the left-hander might be in line to get significant minutes on the third defensive pairing. He worked with Gudbranson, a right shot, while left-handed Jack Johnson skated on a fourth pairing with right-handed reserve Chad Ruhwedel.
Sullivan pumped the brakes on a query if Riikola and Johnson are competing with one another for a spot on the third pairing but lauded Riikola’s performance this preseason.
“Jusso’s had a strong camp,” Sullivan said. “He’s getting better with each game that he’s played. Probably just the familiarity with the training camp itself and the surroundings helps him.”
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .