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Sabres, Ristolainen agree to six-year, $32.4-million contract days before season opener

Take Rasmus Ristolainen off the list of restricted free agents still without deals for the upcoming season. The 21-year-old rearguard signed a six-year deal worth $5.4 million per season to sick around in Buffalo.

The Buffalo Sabres and Rasmus Ristolainen had 105 days between the start of free agency and the first game of the upcoming campaign to work out a new deal, and while they may have used 103 of them, the deal is finally done.

Buffalo GM Tim Murray announced Tuesday that Ristolainen has inked a six-year, $32.4-million contract — an average of $5.4-million per season — with just two days before the puck drops on the Sabres’ 2016-17 campaign. Ristolainen, 21, was one of the big-name restricted free agents still without a contract as the season approached, but his signing shrinks that list and rounds out a Buffalo lineup that is looking to take another step forward this season.

"Rasmus has already proven to be a pivotal player on our blueline and we are eager to have him back with the team," Murray said in a release. "This deal is a reflection of the hard work and improvement Rasmus has shown since being drafted and we hope to see him continue on this trajectory moving forward.”

In the three short seasons Ristolainen has been part of the Sabres’ lineup, he has shot up the depth chart. He made his debut in the North American pro game months after being drafted eighth overall by the Sabres in 2013, and by the end of the campaign he had averaged 19-plus minutes per game while registered two goals and four points. But it was in his second and third seasons that Ristolainen has really shown his growth.

During his sophomore season, Ristolainen averaged upwards of 20 minutes per game and chipped in eight goals and 20 points for the Sabres, and he took on an even larger role with an average ice time of 25:17 in 2015-16 to go along with a career-best nine goals and 41 points in 82 games.

While Ristolainen’s underlying numbers haven’t been the greatest — he boasts a 41.4 career Corsi for percentage while starting 27.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, according to Puckalytics — those parts of his game can continue to grow in the coming years. He’s still well away from reaching his prime, but he excels with the puck on his stick and has shown some real offensive upside.

None of this is to mention that Ristolainen is an incredibly rangy defenseman, standing 6-foot-4, 207 pounds, and that’s an unteachable aspect of Ristolainen’s game that’s hard not to see value in. He can still learn to use his size to the best of his ability, but it’s hard to sleep on that aspect of his game.

The best part of Ristolainen’s deal, though, is that it’s more than manageable for the Sabres moving forward. Buffalo only has roughly $2 million in cap space available for this coming season, according to CapFriendly, but even with Ristolainen’s raise, Buffalo projects to have more than $23.4 million to spend come next off-season with rearguards Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson set to come off the books.

Better yet, the Sabres don’t have to worry about Ristolainen’s raise getting in the way of paydays for youngsters Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. By the time both Eichel and Reinhart reach restricted free agent status in July 2018, Evander Kane’s $5.25-million cap hit should be off the book, as will Josh Gorges’ $3.9-million cap hit. 

It may have taken a while to get Ristolainen’s deal done, but the fact of the matter is it’s done and he’s ready for the new campaign. And if Ristolainen can keep growing and continue to prove just how useful he is in Buffalo, he should have no trouble landing himself an even bigger deal next time around.

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