Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Back in July, I wrote a piece laying out a case for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to start the season in Rochester.
The basic premise was that the Buffalo Sabres organization is still in reset-mode even while focusing upon the "build" aspect of the rebuild. The wrecking ball that came crashing into the parent club last season left so much rubble, it will take at least another year to completely remove it. And although plenty of positive changes have been made, there will be plenty of losing going on this season.
Conversely, the Rochester Americans are in a different situation. Although they've been bounced from the Calder Cup playoffs in the first round three years running, last year they trudged through a ton of adversity to take a very strong Chicago Wolves team to the limit, losing the series 3-2.
Individually, the Amerks have some top-end talent up-front in Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko, Luke Adam and Phil Varone. They have rookie Jake McCabe and second year man, Chad Ruhwedel ready to join a bevy of tough, seasoned vets on the back-end and they have two potential #1 goalies in Andrey Makarov and Nathan Lieuwen vying for the top spot.
Would it be better for both Ristolainen and the organization to let him take the bumps and bruised of life in the NHL on a losing club? Or would all parties be better served to keep him in Rochester in a winning environment?
After writing the previously mentioned piece, many pointed to the words of Sabres GM Tim Murray as saying that Ristolainen was almost assured a spot on the big club. But, a full quote from Murray around that time goes like this, "Could [Ristolainen] play in the NHL this year? Yes, he could. But would another half season in the AHL help him? Absolutely."
Fact is, regardless of what this blogger might think, and possibly despite what his GM might have thought at the time, Ristolainen seems hell-bent on making the team this year.
Back at the 2013 Draft Ristolainen was touted as the only NHL-ready defenseman other than 4th overall pick, Seth Jones (NSH.) At 6'3, 203 lbs. he definitely had the NHL size, and after spending two seasons in SM-liiga, Finland's top pro league, he was seen as having enough experience to make the jump. He began playing against men for TPS Turku at the age of 16--the second youngest player ever in league history.
He had a solid training camp and impressed at the Traverse City tournament last year. All of those factors last off season, along with the youth movement Buffalo was going through, were enough to land him a spot on the Sabres roster to open the 2013-14 season.
Ristolainen stayed there until all the youngins not named Zemgus Girgensons were sent to their respective leagues to develop properly. The environment was toxic in Buffalo as the team crashed hard to the bottom of the league.
After heading to Rochester, Ristolainen found himself paired with his polar opposite, long-time AHL defenseman, Drew Bagnall.
Bagnall, the captain of the Amerks, was a 2003 6th round pick of the Dallas Stars who had logged over 400 games in the AHL. Despite their differing backgrounds, each would excel in their roles--Bagnall as the tough, stay-at-home defensive defenseman, Ristolainen as the offensive-minded one.
It worked, as did the tandem of Ristolainen and Sabres 2010 first round pick Mark Pysyk. With Bagnall going down to injury in March, this was the top pairing for the Amerks during the stretch-run and into the playoffs.
Ristolainen had two stints with the Sabres last season totaling 34 games. He would end up with a stat-line of 2 goals, 2 assists and a minus-15 rating. In Rochester he would also log 34 games scoring six goals and adding 14 assists with a minus-2 rating. Simple stats as a sample of where he was developmentally.
The Sabres are walking "kind of a fine line" with Ristolainen as they do with many prospects, according to Amerks broadcaster, Don Stevens. "Are [those prospects] going to advance any further? Is their attitude going to be just as good playing at [the AHL] level?" he asked. "Or are you holding them here too long where their attitude starts to go downhill and they start to become negative?"
There's no doubt that Ristolainen is a mature player for a 19 yr. old, and a player's maturity is probably the most definitive factor in the process. He acquitted himself well while playing against men in the Finnish Elite League and he was able to hold his own in the NHL, albeit with typical rookie mistakes and inconsistencies, during his initial stint in Buffalo. He allowed himself to grow in Rochester and absorbed the professionalism Bagnall offered on a nightly basis. When he returned to the Sabres for a 15-game stint to end the Sabres season, there was a marked improvement in his overall game.
And if this off season is any indication last years growth wasn't enough for him. Ristolainen's actions are demanding a look from Murray and Company. According to Amerks head coach Chadd Cassidy who ran the Sabres Development Camp in July, Ristolainen "took every piece of advice that we gave him throughout the year and executed on it.”
If the team thought he was cut when they drafted him, he came to Buffalo in July even leaner, eliminating any "baby fat" that might have remained. When talking with Sabres prospect Anthony Florentino, he was in awe of his fellow Team Blue defenseman, "He's an absolute powerhouse," said Florentino, "honestly, the only word to describe him is a specimen."
Ristolainen took a lot of pride in his off season workouts in Finland, wanted to show the organization that he was ready for the rigors of the NHL. Cassidy took note saying that it will help Ristolainen finish shifts as his lack of optimum conditioning lead to scoring chances for the opposition when he tired at the end of his shifts.
Whether Ristolainen thinks he's ready for the NHL or not, the proof of where he will land may be in whom the organization has signed for Rochester.
On August 21st they announced the re-signing of defenseman Matt McKenzie (2010, 83rd overall.) He will be joining veterans Bagnall, Nick Petrecki, and July free agent-signee, Tyson Strachan on the back end. Prospect Brady Austin (2012, 193rd overall) just signed his first pro contract and looks to be a part of the d-corps as well, and Jerome Leduc (2010, 68th) is entering his third season with the Amerks.
Add in Wisconsin product McCabe (2012, 44th) and the return of Ruwhedel, both of whom will probably start in Rochester, and you have an Amerks blueline that's sits at eight players.
With moves like those, it would seem as if the organization is targeting Ristolainen for the big club this season. And it's not just to sit up in the press box watching. He'll be nipping at the heels of first-pairing d-man Tyler Myers, working hard to land those coveted minutes.
Building the 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Matt Moulson/C, Tyler Ennis/RW, Drew Stafford
-Cody Hodgson/-Zemgus Girgensons/-Brian Gionta
RHD, Tyler Myers/LHD, Josh Gorges