Sunday, September 3, 2017

Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster--D, Rasmus Ristolainen

Published by, 9-2-2017

Rasmus Ristolainen
22 yrs. old
6'4" 203 lbs.
2013, 8th-overall

Career Stats:  273 games  |  25 goals  |  85 assists  |  110 points  |  -77

Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen came in at No. 23 on’s list of the top-20 defensemen in the league. The 22 yr. old Sabres rearguard was sandwiched between an "on the bubble" group that found him behind Justin Faulk (CAR) and John Klingberg (DAL) but ahead of Marc-Edouard Vlasic (SJS) and Seth Jones (CBJ,) a player that was picked four spots ahead of Ristolainen in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
To Sabres fans, Ristolainen is the team's No. 1 defenseman who was a workhorse under previous head coach Dan Bylsma while averaging an NHL fifth-best 26:28 minutes per game last season. That  was over a minute more than the 25:17 ATOI from the prior season. The 6'4" 203 lb. native of Turku, Finland will be entering his fifth NHL season and has upped his point total every season while his plus/minus has gone down. Last season Ristolainen potted six goals and added 39 assist for a career-high 45 points with a minus-9 rating.
Those are the overall numbers which make him a key component on the Sabres. However, there's a quibble over Ristolainen's effectiveness as a defenseman, whether or not he should be viewed as a No.1 or even a top-pairing d-man, and where his place should be in the pecking order of NHL defensemen.
The quibble is based upon the analytics community busting out their spread sheets and concluding that Ristolainen isn't all he's cracked up to be. From the extreme side of that equation, one person wrote prior to last season that the Sabres are better without him on the ice. Stats are stats, however, and if you ask any player or coach that has played with or against him, they'd probably offer up a different opinion.
There is truth to both statistical sides but what there are a couple truisms that can't be denied. As stated, Ristolainen has upped his production every season in the league and also his ATOI has increased every season as well. Bylsma relied heavily on Ristolainen last season playing him over 29 minutes/game in 20 games and 30 minutes or more in eight of those.
Despite being in top-notch shape, Ristolainen, as he did the prior season, wore down and became less and less effective in the mid-latter part of the season. Part of that has to do with game management and part of it has to do with his defense partners. As he matures, Ristolainen will start managing the game better but he really has no control over his d-partners. In the past Ristolainen has been taking on the best the opposition has with a variety of defense partners none of whom should ideally be on the top paring. Each brought different skills but also brought an array of deficiencies that had to be accounted for as well.
And there's also Bylsma's system that affected the entire team including the defense corps, as stated by goalie Robin Lehner recently. “The problem was we really didn’t know how to play,” he told a group of reporters at a workout last weekend. “The defensemen, it’s a common misconception (it was a problem). It’s how we play as a team. I was sitting watching the whole Stanley Cup playoffs last year. If you watch the good teams, look at Pittsburgh, everyone defends, everyone comes back and everyone plays as a five-man unit, and it’s fast forward and fast back in the defensive zone.
“I think that’s what [new coach] Phil [Housley] wants. He doesn’t want us to play slow. He wants us to play fast, and everyone attacks and everyone defends. That’s what we need to do. We didn’t do that last year. We were playing as three forwards and two defensemen.”
Ristolainen is still learning a lot about the game but he has himself a solid foundation. The criteria for's top-20 defensemen was laid out as such, "Whether it's blocking a shot, breaking up a pass or chipping in offensively, there are many areas that make a player a top defenseman," and Ristolainen did all of that very effectively in a No. 1 role. He's still weak in areas but taken as a whole, he's been progressing nicely.
"[Ristolainen is] only 22 and plays in every situation, and the Sabres rely on him so heavily," said's Ken Daneyko, a former defenseman and three-time Stanley Cup winner. "He's big, strong and is just rounding out his game. It takes some young defensemen longer than others, but I only expect him to get better and better."
I think those of us in Sabreland would agree.
Building the 2017-18 Buffalo Sabres roster:

LW, Evander Kane / C, Jack Eichel / RW, Sam Reinhart
D, Rasmus Ristolainen

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