Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen will be opening up his 2016-17 hockey season playing for Team Finland in the inaugural World Cup of Hockey and all indications have him on the top-pairing when Finland takes on Team North America in Toronto, ON on September 18th. The Finns will have a very good, young group patrolling the blueline with 25 yr. old Sami Vatenen likely being the elderstatesman of the corps.
Ristolainen is all of 21 years old but already has nearly 200 NHL games under his belt. If you add in his games played against professionals as a teenager in Finland for two years (at 16 he was the second youngest ever) as well as 34 games for the Rochester Americans plus playoffs in all leagues, Ristolainen has over 325 games a pro to this point in his young career. When he said "age is just a number to me" for a recent NHL piece on Finland's defense-corps at the WCOH, it's something to take note of as the 6'4" 207 lb. former first round pick has all the earmarks of a savvy veteran in the prime of his career.
Buffalo selected Ristolainen with the eighth-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. On the draft floor then head amateur scout Kevin Devine openly blurted out that the Nashville Predators, who were at the podium about to make the fourth selection in the draft, "were going to take our guy," meaning Ristolainen. That didn't happen. Nor did the Edmonton Oilers, who were one spot ahead of Buffalo and looking for a defenseman, take him.
Ristolainen started the 2013-14 season with Buffalo and played in 34 games before being sent to Rochester as the organization was resetting itself. He played 34 strong games in Rochester, plus five in the playoffs, to end his first pro campaign in North America before then headed home to train. He came back to Buffalo for Development Camp in 2014 noticeably cut with a look that said he never wanted to see AHL ice again.
The 2014-15 season was a rocky one for the entire franchise but Ristolainen began pull out of it and when top-pairing defenseman Zach Bogosian went down with an injury, then head coach Ted Nolan called upon Ristolainen to take on a bigger role with the club. “Certain guys grab the reigns when they’re given a ride, and some guys choke up a little bit,” Nolan said at the time (via Bill Hoppe.) “It all has to do with their personalities. But I think Ristolainen’s one of those kids, he seems a little bit more mature than his age. He’s really grasped it and he wants to be a real good player.”
From March 14th until the end of that season, a span of 14 games, Ristolainen played under 23 minutes only three times and 25 played minutes or more five times including over 28 minutes in three consecutive games to kick it off. During that span he scored four goals and added five assists and was a minus-1 on a team barreling towards the bottom of the league.
In summing up his play during that stretch Nolan said, "To play the minutes he’s played and the situations he’s played, he had a great opportunity here, and he took advantage of it. So he’s going to get better and better when he’s 24, 25, 26, 27. That’s when you’re really going to see the real one. But watching the process every day is going to be a treat.”
And that's what we Sabres fans are seeing right now--the maturation of Ristolainen.
Last season Sabres GM Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma leaned heavily on Ristolainen to the tune of 25:16 minutes per game, good for 10th in the NHL. That he was the youngest player in the top-10 by five years showed how important piece he is of the Sabres new core going forward. Although it wasn't all rainbows, unicorns and jujus for Ristolainen he proved last season that he could shoulder a heavy workload associated with being a No. 1 defenseman without it adversely affecting his overall game. His 41 points on nine goals and 32 assists were both career highs.
Bylsma has said that Ristolainen won't be seeing that much ice time this year as the defense-corps looks to be stronger this season. Murray traded young NHL defenseman Mark Pysyk to Florida for 28 yr. old, top-four defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and they still have veteran Bogosian in a top-four role. Another veteran, Josh Gorges, played on the top-pairing last season and acquitted himself well while young defenseman Jake McCabe held his own as a rookie on the second pairing with Bogosian. But clearly Ristolainen is the key on the blueline and is a big part of this team moving forward. That is, if and when he re-signs.
Ristolainen just finished his entry-level deal and word from Sami Hoffren of Urheilusanomat sports in Finland indicates that he won't be inking a new one before the WCOH.
There's no reason to think a deal won't get done as both he and the Sabres have made it through a scorched-earth rebuild with their faculties intact and a strong eye on prize at the end of the journey, the Stanley Cup.
As a part of that journey, Sabres fans can't wait to see the "real" Ristolainen after he finishes his growing pains. For those who see his shortcomings as part of the maturation process for defensemen, the process has been a treat so far and there's plenty of optimism moving forward.
Building the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Evander Kane/ C, Ryan O'Reilly/ RW, Kyle Okposo
D, Rasmus Ristolainen