Heading into the 2015-16 NHL season, fans of the Buffalo Sabres had a lot to be excited about.
After a disastrous season the year prior, and no shortage of rumours about intentional tanking to produce a higher draft pick, the Sabres were finally now ready to start building the team back up again using their impressive stockpile of talented young players: Jack Eichel, the highly-touted 2nd overall pick at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft; Sam Reinhart, the 2nd overall pick from 2014 that was now ready for full-time NHL duty; 24 year-old forwards Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly, picked up in separate trades and ready to make their Sabres debuts.
Yet it’s 21 year-old defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen that is, with all due respect to the other players just mentioned, having the biggest impact on the team these days.
In a league where number one defensemen are one of, if not the most, important roles that teams covet, the Sabres must be absolutely thrilled that they currently have one blossoming with Ristolainen. Despite his young age and limited NHL experience (155 games), Ristolainen is leading his entire team in average ice time, at 24:43 per game. Not only that, but the next closest player on the team, O’Reilly, is only averaging 21:55, which is quite a gap between first and second.
Additionally, the Sabres aren’t hesitant to use Ristolainen, in true number one defender fashion, in any and all situations. Defensively, he leads the team in shorthanded time on ice at 02:17 per game, and has a high percentage of defensive zone starts among team defenders. He’s no slouch offensively, either, playing on the team’s top powerplay unit and sitting second on the team in total points, with 28 spread over 43 games.
He scored his eighth goal of the season on Tuesday night in Minnesota’s 3-2 win over the Minnesota Wild:
The Sabres, as a team, are still pretty bad, dwelling near the bottom of the NHL’s standings. But, hey, you can’t expect a ton out of an organization that’s still rebuilding. Luckily for them, however, is that they are well on their way to laying the foundations for sustained future success, and Ristolainen is already providing them with an incredible piece that they can build their blueline around.