Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is on a trajectory to hit the NHL this year in a top-four role.
At 6'4" 207 lbs., the 19 yr. old Finn already has NHL-size and he showed at the 2014 Sabres Development Camp that he's much farther along than any prospects not named Zemgus Girgensons or Mark Pysyk.
The 20 yr. old Girgensons, a forward, was with the Sabres all last season (70 games) while Pysyk has played in 63 games for Buffalo over the course of the last two seasons.
Pysyk is a defenseman and last season he showed that he was ready for full-time NHL duty. But the team took a cautious approach to his development and opted to send him back to Rochester during the Olympic break.
Ristolainen has progressed nicely over the course of the last year. He was dubbed as NHL-ready in his 2013 draft year, and looks to be on the precipice of joining the Sabres full-time for the 2014-15 campaign.
With two top-six openings on defense at this juncture, odds are pretty good that Ristolainen will end up starting the season with the big club. Yet, if the Sabres are still keen on optimizing player development and strengthening the organizational pipeline, there's the possibility that he may begin in Rochester.
For a number of reasons.
First and foremost the Sabres were a bad team last year and things aren't looking all that much different this year. They'll have a long, hard climb just to start peeking their head out of the cellar.
Although Sabres GM Tim Murray made some pretty solid moves the first of July, keep in mind that the Buffalo Sabres finished the 2013-14 season in last place, 14 points behind Florida Panthers.
They'll need the equivalent of seven more wins just to tie for 29th place.
And the Sabres will need to do that with a 1B/1B goaltending tandem of Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. They will be replacing a bonafide #1 goalie in Ryan Miller who either stole or kept the Sabres in a number of games last season.
It should also be noted that Enroth and Neuvirth averaged out at about 2.80 goals against/game last season. Over the course of an 82 game season that equals 229 goals against.
Juxtapose that with last season's 157 goals scored by the Sabres (39 goals less than the 29th place Florida Panthers scored in that category.)
Murray did sign Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta to add some offense. Moulson scored six goals in 20 games for Minnesota after Buffalo traded him while Gionta had 18 for Montreal last season.
An optimist would have the Sabres increase their goal total by about 30 with the addition of those two. But they will still be hard pressed to score more than 180-190 goals next year.
Despite the influx of optimism from a surprisingly strong off season thus far, it looks like there will be more "suffering" in Buffalo next year. Although it won't be anything close to what fans went through last season, this team looks like they will be at the bottom of the league once again.
With that in mind, the Rochester Americans look to be on the rise and the difference between the Amerks going from a playoff-bubble team to a No. 4/5 seed (or higher) may be the presence of Ristolainen.
If Pysyk is a lock for the Sabres and Ristolainen gets the nod as well, it will adversely affect the Amerks blueline.
Without those two the Amerks only have four vets to start--Chad Ruwhedel, Tyson Strachan, Jerome Leduc, and Drew Bagnall.
Promising rookie Jake McCabe and fellow rookie Brady Austin will fill out the top-six while they'll need to make another depth signing to fill out the roster.
Conversely, having Ristolainen on the Amerks roster will allow the entire defense corps to fall into place as he takes over the unquestioned #1/shutdown spot.
Add a solid group of defensemen in front of a pretty strong goaltending duo and the Amerks may finally make it past the first round of the playoffs.
That's development. For individuals and for the organization as a whole.
As for Ristolainen, he said he was "surprised" and somewhat disappointed that he was sent down last season. There's no reason to believe that he wouldn't have the same emotions this time around.
But with the Sabres in reset mode and confidence being built from the ground up, there's no need to rush any player, even a prospect the caliber of Ristolainen.
Given an option to have a soon to be 20 yr. old defenseman in a losing NHL environment or winning AHL environment, the Sabres should err on the side of caution, like they did with Pysyk.
Until the NHL trade deadline the Sabres should keep Ristolainen in Rochester and allow him to continue to develop. Said Amerks head coach Chadd Cassidy last season on Ristolainen's time in Rochester, “I think he’s grown leaps and bounds and learning here, not under the pressure of what can be happening up [in Buffalo].”
When Pysyk was sent down, it wasn't because of his performance with Buffalo, it was for his continued development.
Being every bit the leader he is, the 22 yr. old Pysyk said of his demotion, “I definitely think I need to work on my consistency,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve outgrown this league at all. It’s still a battle out there for me.”
“It’s such a tough thing just confidence-wise, I think the atmosphere, you’re under the scrutiny a lot more,” Cassidy said about the NHL. “Not to mention you’re in your peer group here (in the AHL,) at least closer to it.”
Ristolainen proved that he could dominate his peers at times, most of which came when paired with Pysyk.
Moving forward he may be able to do for his partner what Pysyk did for him which is play that staunch, shut-down game while his d-partner (McCabe, maybe) learns the ropes.
Methinks that's a good way develop the pipeline.