The Buffalo Sabres have been searching for a legitimate top defenseman for a long time. They thought they had their man a few years ago in Tyler Myers, but that went south and ended in Myers being traded to the Winnipeg Jets. Before him, it was supposed to be Henrik Tallinder, but injury issues slowed his career down before he moved on to another team.
This time the Sabres may have their man in 22-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen. The 2013 first-round pick has progressed to not only being the unquestioned top defender on the club, but he is now entering the conversation for one of the top blueliners in the NHL.
After a lengthy negotiation, the Sabres locked up Ristolainen with a six-year, $32.4 million contract. The move solidified the club’s faith in a young player who they believe still had the potential to get better in his third full NHL season.
The Finnish native took over as the true number-one defenseman last season. Along with Josh Gorges, Ristolainen hauled the majority of the minutes, playing in all situations for head coach Dan Bylsma. He averaged 25:16 time on ice last season, which was tenth among all defenseman.
This past summer Bylsma talked about wanting to cut down the minutes played by Ristolainen for this season. He believed with the addition of Dmitry Kulikov to the defense group that Ristolainen no longer needed to have all of the weight on his shoulders.
— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) August 16, 2016
Bylsma’s plan never got off the ground. The injuries to the Sabres blue line to important players like Zach Bogosian, Gorges, and Kulikov have put a lot of the pressure on Ristolainen. The 6-foot-4-inch defender welcomed the challenge of playing more minutes. Currently, he’s averaging 26:41, which is fifth among all NHL defenders. Ristolainen is the type of player who wants to be on the ice as much as possible and over the last two games, in particular, he’s gotten his wish. Against the Washington Capitals, he registered 29:51 opposing Alexander Ovechkin. On the very next night against the Edmonton Oilers, he played another 29:58 against Connor McDavid.
I feel great right now. I could go again tomorrow night. – Rasmus Ristolainen after the Oilers game
Ristolainen has excelled playing the extra minutes and has shown his coach that he can be relied on to carry the load. When asked about his young defenseman after the game against Edmonton, Bylsma described how impressed he’s been. He said that Ristolainen has “had some long shifts, he’s had some tough shifts, he’s had some tough battles.” However, it hasn’t slowed him down as his production has only increased.
Not only has Ristolainen been excellent in the defensive zone, but he’s producing at a career-best pace so far this season. He’s currently on pace for 50 points, which would surpass his career high of 42 he accumulated just last season. If not for issues with his stick continuously breaking throughout the beginning of the season he could be on pace for over 50 points. It seemed that nearly every night he had a stick explode on him as he wound up for a one-timer from the point. Now, with a little encouragement from his coach, Ristolainen has changed his stick and an increase in shots followed the switch.
At times this year he’s shied away from using his shot because of the sticks – Dan Bylsma
The former eighth overall pick is tied for 16th among all NHL defensemen with 16 points entering Wednesday night’s games. Ristolainen also continues to be one of the best defenders in league producing on the power play. He has 11 points with the man-advantage, which ranks him second behind only the St. Louis Blues’ Kevin Shattenkirk, who has 12 points.
The increase in minutes has only seemed to spark the offensive side of Ristolainen’s game, where the expectation might have been to see a dip in those numbers while he focused on his own end. In the last two games in which he’s played close to 30 minutes, he’s registered four points.
Three of those points came Tuesday night against the Oilers, including a typical Ristolainen shot from the point, off the far post and in for the game-winner in overtime.
Ristolainen’s play at both ends of the ice has him entered into the discussion as one of top young defenseman in the league. He shuts down opponents’ top players, plays close to 30 minutes a game, and is on pace to be a 50-point player. The new contract that he signed only two months ago looks like it’ll be a steal for the Sabres for the next six years.