"I have seen so much sh**."
Such were the translated words of Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen as he talked with a Finnish TV station back in mid-January after a 4-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. With that loss, the Sabres dropped to 24-18-6 in a season where they started out great, floundered a bit then plummeted to a 26th place finish in the NHL. It was the eighth consecutive season Buffalo missed the playoffs, the sixth time with Ristolainen on the team.
Seven months later, the 24 yr. old Turku, Finland native would be back in front of Finnish MTV Sports expressing more frustration. "I have not been able to help the team win," he said via Google translation, "Recent seasons have been tough and I haven't been able to enjoy hockey."
Where have we heard that before?
After the 2017-18 season, Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly admitted he lost his love for the game at times while playing in Buffalo and was eventually traded to the St. Louis Blues where he became the 2019 Selke Trophy-winner as the NHL's top two-way forward. He would also win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP while helping the Blues win their first-ever Stanley Cup.
Perhaps O'Reilly moving on and enjoying such tremendous success fueled Ristolainen's own desire to move on himself. "The Angry Finn," as he's been described, carried a huge defensive weight while anchoring a shoddy defense in Buffalo to the tune of 25:42 minutes of average time on ice over the past four, post-tank seasons which good for fifth in the entire league. And he did so under two different coaches with a third one on the way this season. Despite the struggles of the team and himself, that frustration rarely manifested itself in post-game interviews or even at locker cleanout, season after disappointing season. However this year was a little different.
"[With] the way it started, it's hard to imagine you end up where we are right now," said Ristolainen to the gathered press at locker cleanout this year. The Sabres had been first-overall in the league in late November after a franchise-tying 10-game winning streak but the bottom fell out and they finished in 26th place and once again, out of the playoffs. "I've been here six years and a similar situation every year so it's tough.
"It gets tougher every year," he continued. "You want it more and more and it's still not there so, it's really tough."
Ristolainen remained pensive through most of the interview, saying about another coaching change, "when you don't reach your goals, change can happen and should happen" while also reflecting on his and his team's play. "When I and the team played good it's so far away no one remembers that. This is the feeling the last months, they've been really bad and that's the feeling personally and team-wise." But he did lash out a bit at the team's intensity level both at practice and during games. "Sometimes I would like to see something in practice or in the room - when you guys don’t see - guys going at each other. You know, maybe mother-f%cker each other a little bit," was his response to the lack of players holding each other accountable.
The situation with Ristolainen and the Sabres over the past four years will always have chicken/egg overtones. Who was ultimately responsible for the failures of both player and team? Was it Ristolainen playing a big-minute/top-pairing role that ultimately failed the team or was it a team with poor overall talent and questionable coaching decisions that undermined Ristolainen?
One thing we do know is that a right-shot, 6'4" 215 lb. rugged defensemen with offensive ability that skates extremely well is package that's hard to come by. The last four seasons Ristolainen was sixth amongst NHL defensemen with 775 hits while his 144 assists were tied for 15th and his 170 points placed him 22nd in the league amongst rear-guards. However, despite those offensive numbers, he's regarded as an analytics-villian posting poor possession numbers while exacerbating that with a league-worst minus-96 over those four years (Arizona's Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Vancouver's Ben Hutton were next closest at minus-75 each.)
Ristolainen is known as more of a loner amongst the Sabres beat writers, but he takes his craft very seriously. He's always in tip-top shape and his focus is all hockey. "Risto's a very proud player, he wants to be on the ice all the time," said Sabres GM Jason Botterill on The Instigators show last week. "He wants to be in the offensive zones for opportunities where he can help create offense and he also wants to play against the other team's top players."
For the past four seasons former Buffalo coaches Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley had talked about cutting Ristolainen's on-ice time to the 22-23 minute range. That didn't happen and one would think that the support wasn't there meaning he had to log extra minutes he might not have been ultimately suited for. Botterill talked about that saying Ristolainen may not have had that energy level playing 25-27 minutes in a game. "He can certainly do it," said the GM, "but do you have that drive when the game's really on the line?
"We've talked a lot about it, surrounding Risto with more talent, with better players."
All that said, it may be for naught.
Ristolainen's name has been in the rumor mill for months and after locker cleanout this year, it would seem as if he'd seen enough and is ready to move on. Trade rumors were on fire this off season but have since faded a bit. That was until he did that interview with MTV Sports again yesterday. "Recent seasons have been tough," said Ristolainen via translation, "I haven't been able to help the team win." And when asked about his current situation with the Sabres he responded, "The situation is open. I can not say anything [other than] on the 12th of September [I'll be in] one of the NHL team's training camp."
With the amount of sh** he's seen and been through in Buffalo, one can't blame him for taking that approach.