When training camp opens for the 2013-2014 NHL season, there will be quite a battle at the defenseman position for the Buffalo Sabres. One of the biggest question marks on the backend is recent first-round pick Rasmus Ristolainen. Should he follow in the footsteps of 2012 first-round pick Mikhail Grigorenko and start the season on the Buffalo Sabres roster?
Start Building for the Future NowThe answer is yes. While many fans may be turned off by the way Mikahail Grigorenko’s rookie season shook out, they should be thinking more about how Tyler Myers won the Calder Trophy during his first campaign. That’s not to say that the Finnish defender will be a frontrunner for rookie of the year, but he deserves a shot on what will be a predominantly young roster. With the prospects of a successful seasons unlikely, the young players should take their lumps now and start gaining NHL experience.
The Sabres should follow a similar approach to Ristolainen as they used with Myers. They should pair the rookie defenseman with a veteran on the blue line. Christian Ehrhoff would be an ideal choice. The two would compliment each other well. Ehrhoff, like Ristolainen, is an offensively gifted defeseman with years of NHL experience, which would stabilize the rookie. Additionally the German blueliner’s left-handed shot would be a perfect pairing with Ristolainen’s right-handed shot, allowing the two to play their natural positions on the point.
Where Ristolainen’s situation differs from that out of Grirgorenko’s and Myers’ is that he already possesses pro experience heading into his NHL career. He played the last two seasons for TPS of the Finnish SM-liiga. During the 2011-12 season, Ristolainen netted three goals and tallied five assists while taking 78 penalty minutes in 40 games. The following season, he improved immensely again scoring three goals and adding 12 assists while taking 32 penalty minutes in 52 games. Overall, he showed much more poise and discipline play during his second professional season. By playing with fully-developed men, the Finnish prospect will have a leg up on most other rookies heading into camp.
Furthermore, he’s got plenty of big-game international experience to bank on. He’s played for Team Finland during the last two World Junior Championships where he has accumulated eight assists in 17 games. During last year’s tournament he captained the team, showing superior leadership qualities that will translate well to his pro game.
What the Scouts are Saying
Many scouts around hockey are quite high on Ristolainen and see him as much more of an NHL-ready player than most of his peers from the 2013 NHL Draft.“Ristolainen had a quality season in Finland, where he often logged tough, heavy minutes for TPS. That is an impressive role for an 18-year-old defenseman in that league. He best skill is his hockey sense. He thinks the game at a level well beyond his years, and he does not make many mistakes on the ice,” says Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus. “He can flash significant offensive ability, but the bulk of value will come from his work in his own zone. To that point, he will lay the body, and he can provide quality hits. He could fast track to the NHL quicker than a typical defense prospect.”
The Scouting Report echoed similar sentiments stating, “many feel that Rasmus Ristolainen could crack an NHL roster as early as next season. A 1994 birthdate, Ristolainen has already logged two full seasons in the SM-Liiga with TPS and has the body frame to play in the NHL as a teenager.”
It appears that Ristolainen has all the tools to make it to the senior circuit right out of the gate. His professional experience coupled with his poise and large frame make him an ideal candidate to make what projects to be a young Sabres roster. One thing is for certain, the fans will be behind the Finnish prospect 100% as he could be the catalyst for the change they are clamoring for in Buffalo.