One of the biggest storylines of the Buffalo Sabres’ preseason was the emergence of Arttu Ruotsalainen. He played very well in the Sabres’ intrasquad games at practice next to Rasmus Asplund and Casey Mittelstadt. Without Jack Eichel, head coach Ralph Krueger trusted Ruotsalainen to center the first line between Taylor Hall and Tage Thompson in a practice. The team ultimately sent him down because they wanted him to adjust to North American ice.
As the Sabres struggle to score, it’s time to call up Ruotsalainen to add a unique dynamic to the lineup.
Ruotsalainen Is Too Good for the AHL
Through the Rochester Americans’ first five games this season, Ruotsalainen has one goal and three assists. In their first game, he went 7-0 at 5v5 in terms of high-danger scoring chances tracked by Chad Dedominicis. Before we dissect his transition to North American ice, it’s worth noting that he is still 15th in Liiga scoring, despite that his last game was in December.
Since the first game against the Utica Comets, Ruotsalainen has been a force on the power play. His one-timer on his offside is comparable to Victor Olofsson’s and the opposition has not been able to figure him out. Like Olofsson, Ruotsalainen basically stands at the face-off dot, gets into position, and his release is too quick for a goaltender to handle.
Ruotsalainen can also drive the play. According to 5v5 shot share and quality data, which is manually tracked by Dedominicis (he is the main source for all Americans data), players like Steven Fogarty’s shot share decreased when taken off Ruotsalainen’s line. Michael Mersch joined the first line, and his shot share increased — an indication that Ruotsalainen is driving play at both ends. He is an NHL-caliber player who is playing in a league below his level.
He may be an asset on the power play, but he can also play in all situations. He plays on the Americans’ top penalty-kill unit and is aggressive at clearing the puck out of the defensive zone. In Rochester’s last game, Ruotsalainen had a Corsi For (CF) of 36%, meaning the opposition had more shot opportunities when he was on the ice. However, in this situation, the first line gave up many shots at 5v5, but most of those were from outside the faceoff circle.
By using both analytics and the eye-test, we can argue that Ruotsalainen is good at managing shot quality. His defensive positioning forces the opposition to settle for a low-danger shot.
Where He Should Play On the Sabres
The Sabres need to add a capable goal scorer and play-driver to their bottom-six. Cody Eakin and Kyle Okposo will not generate offense when they’re constantly hemmed in the defensive zone. The solution is to use Ruotsalainen in Okposo’s spot, and he could also play on the team’s second power-play and penalty-kill unit. He looked good in the preseason, and there is every reason to believe it would work now.
Okposo signed his infamous contract in the summer of 2016 and is valued at $42 million over seven years. He has two seasons left on that deal. In the Sabres’ last game against the Washington Capitals, the Rieder-Eakin-Okposo line had an expected-goals for (xGF%) of 35%, meaning the Capitals were likely to score 65% of the time when that line was on the ice. This fits the narrative of his play as he has zero points in nine games for the season.
Dylan Cozens’s playstyle would match with Ruostalainen, as they are speedy players and have great shots. The Hall-Staal-Cozens line would need to be broken up, and it was very successful in their stint together. As a center, Ruotsalainen can also win faceoffs; he was near the top of Liiga with a 54.9% faceoff percentage (FO%).
When Ruotsalainen was sent down after a strong preseason, some questioned the move. Krueger explained that Ruotsalainen’s development was comparable to Olofsson’s, who needed a season in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL. It is still early in the season, but if the Sabres believe they are a playoff team, they could some help generating offense on the third line.
Ruotsalainen had 16 goals in 19 games in the Liiga and was too good for that league. He is playing very well in the AHL and impressed in the NHL preseason. He could be an improvement on Okposo who is struggling this season. If he keeps up this level of play, he deserves a chance in the NHL this season.