Published by hockeybuzz.com, 12-19-2016
Brian Gionta has been a good captain for the Buffalo Sabres. The 37 yr old Stanley Cup winner came aboard to help stabilize a team about to embark on a complete rebuild and was asked to maintain high standards of professionalism. He's done that very well even finding the fountain of youth in the process.
But Gionta will pass the 'C' on to someone else as soon as next year and there looks to be three viable candidates who's names are always in the mix to succeed him--Ryan O'Reilly, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Ristolainen. Sabers-centric social media, message boards and forums invariably have the captaincy as a battle between O'Reilly and Eichel with Ristolainen stitching on an 'A'.
O'Reilly's a big Canadian boy who lives and breathes the game of hockey. It took a trade to the Sabres and a contract extension for the 26 yr. old to finally get a letter and since he's arrived in Buffalo he's been the consummate professional (save for one off-ice incident) with a drive that has him conducting after-ice practices on a daily basis. He has top-six talent, is impeccable on the draw and is the top minute-man amongst forwards in all situations.
Whiz kid Eichel has a skill-level not seen around these parts for decades. The 20 yr. old center with blazing speed and intimidating skill-set backs off the opposition at every turn and at this juncture seems to be one of those franchise-type players where the moment is never too big. The offensive dimension he adds to the Sabres is statistically chartable, yet the confidence the team gains with him on the ice is immeasurable. He's a player that could (will?) eventually be playing in all situations, but as of right now Eichel is the driving force behind the offense and there's a belief in many circles that the team's best player is ususally it's captian (see Connor McDavid.)
Either player would make an excellent captain for the Sabres, but the one who seems to be building the strongest case on a nightly basis is Ristolainen.
At 22 yrs old Ristolainen has already appeared in 224 NHL games with mostly hard minutes attached to them. Dating back to last season he's been on the ice as an all-situations, top-pair/No. 1 defenseman that has not only grown from it but has thrived as more and more responsibility has been heaped upon him. He skate's extremely well for a big defenseman, has the skill-level to put up points and has a burgeoning Chris Pronger-type attitude when it comes to making life difficult for opposing star players and/or those invading the space around his goal.
Both O'Reilly and Eichel are determined players on the ice, with O'Reilly's leadership coming through regularly, but Ristolainen has a conviction about him. He has that hate-to-lose attitude and you get the feeling that he takes every loss personally. Not in a pensive "I need to be better" way that O'Reilly does, but more like and aggressive frustration that he takes out on sticks and pucks and fitness machines with the idea it won't happen again.
It was that type of attitude that got him noticed on day-one at Sabres development camp back in 2014.
The 2013-14 season for Buffalo was tumultuous as the Sabres fired their long-term GM and the head coach as they nose-dived to the bottom of the league early. Ristolainen was part of a large group of rookies on the club to begin the season but was sent to Rochester after 19 games. He ended up playing in 34 games for Buffalo and 34 games for the Amerks that season and learned a few things about himself and his place in hockey.
While with Rochester Ristolainen was afforded the opportunity to play for his country at the World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden. He put on an All-tournament performance topped off by scoring the Golden Goal as Team Finland defeated Team Sweden in overtime. Ristolainen took his place amongst the best of his peers. And during his stint with the Amerks he was fed top-pairing minutes and ended up with 20 points (6g +14a) and a minus-2 rating in 34 games.
For a player who played in the Finnish Elite League as the second youngest player ever at 16 yrs. old and who'd began his NHL career as a 19 yr. old, the AHL wouldn't do. He headed back to Finland at the conclusion of the hockey season and came back cut eliminating every ounce of "baby fat" he could during off season. "He's an absolute powerhouse," said fellow prospect Anthony Florentino at Sabres development camp. "Honestly, the only word to describe him is a specimen."
Ristolainen has been that way ever since. His workout regimen allowed him to play three consecutive games at over 29 minutes this season and say afterwards that he could handle more. Being a specimen doesn't a captain make. Having the internal drive to become that in order to become the best possible player one could be is certainly a captain-worthy trait.
What it comes down to is a captain representing the ideal of what a franchise should be. A prime example of that is in Detroit where the rise of the Wings began with a highly skilled, smooth-skating, hockey-smart captain in Steve Yzerman passing the baton to Niklas Lidstrom and now Henrik Zetterberg. In Philadelphia it was a highly skilled, rough and tumble Bobby Clarke who defined Philadelphia. Throughout the years Eric Lindros and Mike Richards took the mantle and the 'C' eventually rests in the capable, Clarke-like hands of Claude Giroux.
The Buffalo Sabres are being built to play an up-tempo game with offensive speed and skill and have a head coach in Dan Bylsma who won a Cup while coaching a team with pieces like that. Sabres teams from the past have been built like that dating all the way back to the French Connection, a time when Sabres' owner Terry Pegula was developing his love for hockey. Up-tempo, high-speed and high-end skill are right up Eichel's alley which is why many feel he should be captain.
Yet, for a 6'3" 207 lb. defenseman, Ristolainen has excellent speed and ample skill and hockey smarts to succeed in a system like that. He also plays with an edge to his game somewhat reminiscent of the Flyers back in Clarke's days with a team that was the first to catch Pegula's eye.
The Sabres are evolving right now and the end result is yet to be determined, but Ristolainen has taken his game to a whole different level. “You see him start to develop into a force, joining the offensive play and being part of the five-man offensive thrust,” said Bylsma in a Buffalo News, John Vogl piece today.
Veteran Josh Gorges, Ristolainen's d-partner nearly all of last season and early into this one has seen the evolution up close.
From the Vogl piece:
“He’s starting to realize his potential, realize how good he is, and he wants to be the guy,” the Buffalo defenseman said. “He wants to be the best, and you see that in his drive and how he prepares, how he practices when he gets on the ice.
“You can talk about the skill level and the ability to play the game with 50 different players in the league, and the difference in them isn’t much. I think what separates good players, great players to the elite players is how they think the game, how they see the game, how they prepare and how they go out there. They’re not OK with just being average or just being good. They want to be the best, and that drive is what takes them into what they’re able to do.
“Especially the last little while with Risto, he’s taken it on his shoulders to step up and be a difference maker.”
To me, that's captain material all the way.
For those who haven't seen it, or want to revisit it, here's Ristolainen's Golden Goal at the 2014 WJC courtesy NHLUniverse: