Sabres’ Ruotsalainen Poised for Breakout Season in 2021-22

The journey of Arttu Ruotsalainen has just begun, but there is already so much to reflect on. He tore up the Finnish Elite League (Liiga), scoring 16 goals in 19 games with the Tampereen Ilves during the 2020-21 season. The NHL and AHL seasons began in January and February, respectively, so he had to leave mid-season and head to North America. He would prove to be a dominant player with the Rochester Americans, showcasing his lethal shot on the power play. He was probably ready to play with the Sabres at the beginning of the season, but they wanted to be patient with him.

After the trade deadline, the Eric Staal trade opened up a spot in the team’s top-six. Ruotsalainen was then given that opportunity and played a majority of his minutes with Anders Bjork and Dylan Cozens. After Don Granato took over as the interim head coach, Ruotsalainen scored at a 24-goal pace over an 82-game season. He has produced at all levels so far in his career, and there is reason to believe he will only get better.

In this piece, I will dive into where he will fit in the lineup, analyze if he’s a full-time center, and look at what his potential as a player is in the future.

Ruotsalainen Will Have a Potential Spot on the Second Line

Assuming the Sabres move on from Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, there will be holes to fill. That means the 23-year-old Ruotsalainen will have a shot at playing in the team’s top-six forward lines, because somebody has to play in those spots. There is a limited sample size that Ruotsalainen can play in the top-six regularly, as he only played on their second line for 10 games in 2020-21, so there is some risk. However, the chemistry between Cozens and Ruotsalainen is quite evident, especially looking at this goal scored against the Pittsburgh Penguins:

YouTube player

Ruotsalainen is deceptively fast and is always preparing to take a one-timer from any position. And it makes him dangerous when he’s involved in an odd-man rush because there are so many options. Another aspect of his game is his tenacity and his willingness to retrieve the puck from the corners. He is very active on the ice and can strip the puck off an opponent in an instance.

Related: THW 2021 Mock NHL Draft: Sabres Select Matthew Beniers First Overall

It’s his spot to lose on the second line, whether it is playing wing or center. There will be open spots, and he proved that he could play well there. His playstyle works in the bottom-six as well, but he won’t be as effective there. He won’t have the same quality of teammates to play with and will be forced to play a tighter defensive game. But it’s impressive that he can handle either position, and that makes him a versatile player.

This Season Will Prove if He’s a Full-Time Center in the NHL

During the last stretch of the season, Ruotsalainen and Cozens shared the duties of playing center on their line. Considering Cozens is a part of the core moving forward, according to general manager Kevyn Adams, they may want to continue to explore playing him down the middle (from “LeBrun: Why the Sabres and Coyotes went with unheralded coach hires and what it says about their futures, The Athletic NHL – 7/6/2021). He could be the driving force of this team moving forward. If that is the case, there will be limited opportunities for Ruotsalainen to play as a center, so he will have to make every opportunity count.

Kevyn Adams Buffalo Sabres
General Manager Kevyn Adams of the Buffalo Sabres, 2020 NHL Draft (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the 17 games that Ruotsalainen played, he only won 40 percent of his faceoffs. That will have to improve, but that is also a common issue in younger players. There is also a lot more to the position than lining up for a draw too. Playing the role means that he has to commit more defensively. He always has been effective in his defensive zone coverage, so that will likely not be an issue for him.

According to Natural Stat Trick, the line combination of Ruotsalainen, Cozens, and Bjork produced an expected goals for percentage of 45.45 percent at 5-on-5. The trio was outplayed by their opponents and was often getting out-chanced in scoring opportunities. Although the numbers don’t support them, the talent is there with Ruotsalainen and Cozens. They can use their speed and skill to take over games, and there is chemistry between them.

There was a lot of hype surrounding Ruotsalainen this season, considering his play in the Liiga. Looking at his projection chart, his play in his D+4 season translated to a 54-point pace over an 82-game season in the NHL. This model comes from The Charging Buffalo and takes into account various metrics such as points per game. It uses former players of those leagues to compare statistics and estimates a projection for a prospect — he was the best Sabres prospect this season. His historic numbers in Finland, combined with his scoring in the AHL and NHL, swept fans off their feet.

Ruotsalainen has the potential to become a solid middle-six center during the prime of his career but is versatile and can play as a winger when called upon. He is a power-play threat on the right side of the ice and has a one-timer similar to Victor Olofsson. He is poised to break out next season and prove that he is a full-time NHL regular. The cards are in his hands now.

Sign up for our regular 'Sabres Newsletter' for all the latest.