The Finnish rearguard came into the NHL with great credentials, but at just 21 he is beginning to ascend at a great rate. With premier defensemen so hard to come by, the Sabres appear to have found one for the future.
With Buffalo leading Anaheim 2-0 last night, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen collected a loose puck and swooped in from the right wall towards the Ducks net. He made a move in front and Jamie McGinn ended up with the back-breaking 3-0 goal. I couldn’t help but feel like I had seen a very similar play before and I think most of Finland might be with me on this one.
Slightly more than two years ago, Ristolainen scored the golden goal for Finland at the world juniors in Malmo. Facing a great Swedish team on Swedish soil, Ristolainen had swooped in from the right wall, put a fiendish move on defenseman Robert Hagg and in this case, buried the overtime winner himself for a 3-2 gold-medal shocker.
Based on what Ristolainen has been doing this year for the Sabres, I suppose his heroics in Malmo were more of a preview than anything.
Ristolainen isn’t just leading Buffalo in ice time lately – he’s leading his teammates by a wide margin. We’re talking three, four, five minutes more a game than the next-highest skater. He’s playing in all situations and contributing offensively. His hat trick against Calgary last week was the first by a Sabres defenseman since Phil Housley in 1988 and the first ever by a Buffalo blueliner to occur in one period, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. On top of all that, he and partner Josh Gorges are playing against top lines, often on defensive zone faceoffs.
And just to pile on the accolades, his 24 points has him tied for fifth in the NHL among blueliners with Ryan Suter and John Carlson – some pretty nice company.
Not that Ristolainen came out of nowhere. He was, after all, selected eighth overall by the Sabres in 2013. The third blueliner taken that night behind Seth Jones and Darnell Nurse, Ristolainen was coveted by more teams than just Buffalo – as scouting lore goes, Philadelphia wanted him too, but went with the next defenseman on the list, Samuel Morin, (and hey, Morin may turn out to be a good one, too) with the 11th pick.
While Buffalo is only an outside threat for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, GM Tim Murray’s master plan seems to be coming along swimmingly. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are big pieces up front, currently getting their feet wet without sinking thanks to veterans such as Ryan O’Reilly, Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson.
Ristolainen has Gorges and Zach Bogosian to learn from and the big Finn seems to be a very quick study (playing against men back home when he was a teenager undoubtedly helped). The Sabres will get another decent pick this season and Murray has a scouting staff that can find value even without the top pick overall (Will Borgen and Giorgio Estephan already look like nice finds from 2015).
And for the current Sabres, it must be nice to see other teams behind them in the Eastern Conference right now. Buffalo has more points than Carolina, Toronto and Columbus, while the Wild Card is not an impossibility – they’re about six points out right now, albeit with several teams ahead of them.
But if the end sum of this season is Ristolainen adjusting to a huge work load while Eichel and Reinhart continue to mature, that’s gotta be seen as a win. And hey; the Sabres can still win the draft lottery even if they don’t have the top odds.