Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen looks intimidating. At nineteen years old, he stands at six foot four, with a strong but lean 207 lb frame. He knows how to use it, too- since 2010, the blue liner has racked up 138 penalty minutes between his time in SM-liiga, the AHL, and the NHL. How does this fit in to the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup, though?
Looking Back at the Draft
Ristolainen, who is a native of Turku, Finland, went to the Sabres eighth overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft in New Jersey. He was the first of two picks Buffalo would make in the first round, and the more well-rounded player of the two. Coming off his second full season playing with Turun Palloseura (TPS) of the SM-liiga in his hometown of Turku, Ristolainen looked to be one of the sharpest defensemen drafted in the first round. He was snagged third overall for blue liners that year, coming in right after Darnell Nurse and four spots after Seth Jones.
While in Finland, Ristolainen had risen to prominence as a strong, effective two-way defenseman with good puck-handling skills and a mature playing disposition. He had played for Team Finland since 2009, racking up 15 goals in international play during that time. He was the Alternate captain for the International U18 team, and the captain himself for the U20 team the following year.
The 2013-2014 Season
Ristolainen had a tumultuous rookie season in North America. He split his playing time evenly between the Rochester Americans of the AHL and the Sabres in the NHL, playing 34 games per team, but it wasn’t a clean split. After starting the season skating with the Sabres on opening night against the Detroit Red Wings, Ristolainen was then shuffled up and down between the NHL and the farm system with seemingly reckless abandon. Here’s a breakdown of Ristolainen’s first season-
His first NHL goal was scored during his second run with the Sabres, on October 25th, 2013. He would go on to score only one more goal with the pro team, but managed to walk away from his 34-game run in Rochester with 6 goals and 14 assists. He would also spend significantly less time in the box during the 2013-2014 season; in comparison to his 110 penalty minutes throughout his three-year SM-liiga career, Ristolainen only racked up six minutes with the Sabres and 22 with the Americans.
Ristolainen had a rather lucrative international season during 2014, as well. On January 5th, 2014, he scored the game OT winner for Team Finland in the World Junior Championships Final against the previously undefeated Swedish Team. This goal, which would come to be known as the “Golden Goal”, earned Team Finland their first WJC gold medal since 1998. This was his third goal of the team’s WJC five-game run.
Ristolainen is one of eight defenseman currently signed to the Sabres’ roster for the 2014-2015 season. With two years to go of his $925,000-per-season entry-level contract, the defenseman has plenty of time to grow into a valuable player for the struggling Atlantic Division team.
This is a good thing, though. The Sabres are in a rebuild phase, and have added two veteran blue-liners for the upcoming season that can mentor Ristolainen and the other young team members- Andrej Meszaros, and Josh Gorges. Meszaros is coming off of a President’s Trophy-winning season with the Boston Bruins, who he was traded to at the deadline mid-season last year, and Gorges is coming from the Montreal Canadiens. For those of you who like to watch the Bruins fall, Gorges is part of the reason that happened during the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this spring. Both players are strong, capable, and come from teams with winning systems in place. Between them, Ristolainen has a lot of fresh talent to look up to.
While he improved his defensive play this past season, Ristolainen still hasn’t quite developed into the kind of player who can instinctually read position. This was a criticism made against him in prospect reports back in 2013, and it’s something that he still needs to work on developing. He’ll also need to learn to keep up with the rapid changes that are undoubtedly headed his way, as the Sabres overhaul their team and try to develop into cup competitors once more.
These are little improvements, though. Ristolainen had a great first season, and we can look forward to another great year this upcoming fall.