Friday, September 11, 2015

Building the 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres roster--D, Rasmus Ristolainen

Free agent defenseman Cody Franson has signed a 2-yr. contract with the Buffalo Sabres. There will be a press conference at 11:30 today.

Sabres GM Tim Murray had been looking at signing a left-handed veteran to play top-four minutes and to take some pressure off of some of the youngins on the back-end, but what he got was a veteran righty who may be more of a powerplay specialist.

Originally drafted by the Nashville Predators in the 3rd round (79th overall,) Franson has spent the bulk of his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs where he's had the most production including six points (3+3) in seven 2013 playoff games. Nashville traded for him to bolster their defense corps, but Franson  faltered big-time.

I'm not sure why Murray was so intent upon signing Franson, but as AGM in Ottawa he had plenty of opportunity to watch him play with for Leafs so there's something he saw pre-Nashville that piqued his interest. Or perhaps he sees Franson as a stop-gap that can be moved at the 2017 trade deadline as a rental. But for this year it's a signing that almost guarantees prospect Jake McCabe spends one more year developing in Rochester while players like Mike Weber and Matt Donovan may be seeing a lot of time in the pressbox this season.

What the signing won't affect, however, is Rasmus Ristolainen's spot on the top-pairing.

I'm still hearing the words of then Sabres head amateur scout Kevin Devine when Nashville stepped to the podium at the 2013 NHL Draft. With their Finnish scout in-tow, GM David Poile walked to the stage and Devine was heard saying, "They're going to take our guy" when he thought they'd pick Ristolainen. The Predators ended up taking "their guy," Seth Jones, who was said to be in a battle with Nathan MacKinnon for the No. 1 spot in the draft, with the fourth overall pick.

Devine and his scouts had "keyed on" Ristolainen all season and wanted to use the 8th-overall pick, the first of the Sabres two first-rounders that year. The mantra coming from the organization was "bigger, stronger, faster," and Ristolainen fit that to a "T" and he was touted as one of the most NHL-ready prospects at the draft having played in the top Finnish league, SM-liiga, since he was 16 yrs. old. In a piece for, Ross MacLean, head scout for International Scouting Services, said, “I can’t get enough of Ristolainen. He is everything you could want in a defensive prospect."

After the Sabres drafted him, it wasn't "if" Ristolainen would make it to the NHL, but more of "when." And it came quick.

In October, 2013 the Sabres were barreling towards full rebuild-mode with an opening night roster featuring four rookies or first year players. By the time GM Darcy Regier was fired on November 13, the Sabres were icing a line-up that had as many as six youngins in the line-up but soon thereafter, they were dispersed to their proper developmental leagues. Ristolainen headed to Rochester after playing in 34 NHL games for Buffalo that season.

Despite disappointment in the demotion, it was probably the best thing that could've happened for his career. Ristolainen played top-paring minutes while learning how to be a professional from veteran, Drew Bagnall. The demotion also fueled an off-season drive to never see the AHL again.

At the conclusion of the Amerks season Ristolainen headed back to Finland to work out. He came back to Buffalo for Sabres Development Camp in July in tip-top shape. "I want to show for everybody and myself that I’ve been working hard back in Finland,” he said at the time. He had lost weight, "fat, not  muscle," and came in at 207 lbs. on his 6'4" frame.

"Just seeing the difference in his body, physically,” said Rochester head coach Chadd Cassidy at the time. “You forget these guys are still boys and they’re still developing. Even though they’re men as hockey players, they’re still boys as people. (It’s great) to see his physical transformation and how seriously he’s taken what we’ve tried to get him to do.

Ristolainen ended up averaging 20:36 of ice-time for the 2014-15 season, but his conditioning really came into play when top-defenseman Tyler Myers was traded to the Winnipeg Jets on February 11, 2015. After the trade of Myers, Ristolainen's ice-time would increase substantially. In the final 20 games of the season, he would not see less than 20:58 minutes of while hitting 28:00 minutes or more three consecutive games. Although he ended up a minus-5 during that stretch, the team had a minus-27 goal differential (73-46.)

Like Cassidy said, we forget how you young these players are sometimes. When you look at Ristolainen he has the physical presence of a man amongst boys at times, but he's still only 20 yrs. old and he still has plenty to learn.

A lot of that learning will come this season when he's on the top-pairing in Buffalo. With all the right-handed defensemen on the Sabres roster, it's hard to pin down what side of the ice he'll be on, but it won't matter. Ristolainen has all the tools to succeed, he has physical attributes as well as the drive to excel. He has tremendous hockey sense, is a strong skater, he positions himself well and has a strong physical presence to his game as well as some offensive acumen. Last season he lit the lamp eight times while adding 12 assists so he has the offensive instincts as well as the skills to be a premier, two-way defensemen.

The only thing missing from his resume' is full-time experience in a top-pairing role.

But we'll see plenty of that this season and beyond.

Building the 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane  C, Ryan O'Reilly  RW, Tyler Ennis

D, Rasmus Ristolainen

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