Moving defensemen to forward isn’t anything new for the Penguins
As a native of Finland in his second season playing in North America, English is a second language for Juuso Riikola.
When answering questions from reporters, he tends not to be verbose and is straight to the point.
Riikola, whose English is infinitely superior to the average Pittsburgh reporter’s Finnish, normally offers many one-word answers to queries with a smile.
Suffice it to say, he’s a man of few words.
At the moment, he’s also a man of a few positions.
On Saturday, in a 3-0 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, Riikola, a defenseman by trade, played his second game of the regular season on the left wing with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fourth line. It was the second time in three games he was asked to move up.
Injuries, unexplained absences and a curious roster decision to keep nine defensemen on the roster forced coach Mike Sullivan and staff to move Riikola to forward last week.
“He had a good game,” Sullivan said of Riikola’s effort Saturday. “We used the fourth line a fair amount up until the end when we were chasing the lead there. I thought Juuso had a good game. He’s good on the power play. He’s getting a little bit more comfortable at forward.
“That’s not something we want to make routine. But he skates so well and he has good hockey sense, so we felt as though he was capable of playing there. I thought tonight might have been his best game there.”
“If someone is not able to play, then I will be a forward,” Riikola said after his debut on the wing Wednesday in a 3-2 overtime win at home against the Colorado Avalanche. “I can do it again.”
Riikola’s forward deployment is nothing new for the franchise. Over the past 30 years, the Penguins have used defensemen up front time and time again.
Because of injuries, Deryk Engelland was forced into a winger role by coach Dan Bylsma earlier this decade and even scored a handful of goals.
Coach Michel Therrien wasn’t afraid of bruising a few egos when he had former first-round picks Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney skate as wingers in the late 2000s.
Going back to the mid-1980s, coach Bob Berry used the rough-and-tumble Marty McSorley, a player primarily regarded for fighting, as a right winger for a few contests.
But the Penguins defenseman probably most renowned for his ability to transition between his listed position and various forward roles is Ian Moran, who regularly did it during his time with the franchise from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s.
General manager Craig Patrick, also serving as interim coach, asked Moran to switch from defense late in the 1996-97 season when a trade acquisition didn’t arrive in time for a home game against the Buffalo Sabres on March 18, 1997, at Civic Arena.
“I was playing (defense) when the Penguins traded Glen Murray for Eddie Olczyk,” Moran said by phone Sunday. “Then (Olczyk) had travel issues and couldn’t get in. So for that game, because I had played forward in youth hockey, they asked if somebody could play. I just stepped up and played and happened to score a goal.”
Moran scored on an empty net in a 5-3 victory, and from that point on, he was moved around the lineup. Kevin Constantine took over as coach in the 1997 offseason and deployed Moran in various roles.
“On a need basis, it probably went on for a long, long time,” said Moran, the director of Neutral Zone, a scouting service that covers NHL prospects. “Consistently going back and forth between game to game where there was a stretch where I’d play wing for a while or center, I probably did that for a couple of seasons. If there was a need, I could kind of bounce around.”
That ability to bounce around was taught at an early age.
“I was lucky,” said Moran, who played for Belmont Hill School, a prep school in Massachusetts. “When I was growing up and playing, I had (Hall-of-Fame defeseman) Brian Leetch’s father and (NHL defenseman) Scotty Lachance’s father were our coaches. They made sure all of us could play all the positions. We never really had set positions. You weren’t a defenseman as a squirt or stayed a (defenseman) all the way. We bounced around and played all the positions. It made all of us smarter hockey players.”
Moving from defense to wing wasn’t daunting for Moran. The center position, however, was a bit more challenging.
“I always thought (defense) and wing were fairly similar,” he said. “You could kind of keep your back to the boards and keep the play in front of you, so you could read it and you could pick out where the other nine (skaters) were on the ice. You could count fairly easily and see what was going on.
“Center was the toughest. For me, going to center was the toughest because it was chaos. That was the most difficult situation for me. Once you’re in the (defensive) zone, it was fine. But in the neutral zone in transition, there so much pace to the game and randomness, it was hard to adjust to having the chaos all over you.”
All-stars such as Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien have moved between defense and forward in recent seasons. Moran was hardly a player of that ilk but feels his versatility allowed him to contribute to playoff-caliber squads.
“I looked at it as I was helping the team,” Moran said. “We had pretty high-profile guys that were supposed to take care of putting points up and scoring goals on the power play. If I could contribute and help out in any other way … it was what we were supposed to do to help the team win.”
It remains to be seen if the Penguins will use Riikola up front in the future. As Sullivan said, it’s not ideal.
At the same time, it’s not necessary a bad development for Riikola.
“I never viewed it as a negative,” Moran said. “I always thought it was a positive. … You’re playing at a high level because you’re in the NHL. Obviously, not an all-star but to be able to play in the NHL at multiple positions, it’s testament to usually how smart the player is and how they can figure things out. They might not have the greatest skills and all that kind of stuff, but their brain is usually pretty good if they can (play) multiple positions.”
Note: The Penguins had a scheduled off day Sunday.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .