23 yrs. old
6'4" 218 lbs.
Career Stats: 346 games | 31 goals | 120 assists | 151 points | -102
It's hard to believe that Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is 23 yrs. old and entering his fifth full NHL season. Wasn't it just yesterday that the Sabres selected him, and fellow "Twin Tower" Nikita Zadorov in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft? Yes it does feel that way but alas, Ristolainen (selected eighth overall) is entering the prime of his career and has played a lot of hard minutes along the way.
After his first full season in Buffalo where he logged just over 20 minutes of ice-time per game, Ristolainen cracked the NHL's top-10 in ATOI with 25:17 in 2015-16 under Dan Bylsma and has seen his ice-time ramp up even more since. Despite both Bylsma and his replacement, Phil Housley, saying that they'd like to lower his minutes and have him at around 22 minutes/game, Ristolainen logged 26:28 minutes (fifth in the league) in Bylsma's final season as head coach while setting a career high with 26:10 ATOI (fourth) last season under Housley. Over the past three seasons Ristolainen has averaged 26:04 ranking him fourth in the league behind Erik Karlsson (Ott,) Ryan Suter (MIN) and Drew Doughty (LAK.)
That much ice-time is too much ice-time for him and it affected his overall game but neither coach had much of a choice considering the defense they had to work with. Thoughts of Ristolainen early in his career had him in the top-pairing on most teams in the league. After nearly 350 NHL games Ristolainen looks to be in the 2/3 range moving forward which isn't a bad thing for the Sabres as he's signed to a reasonable $5.4 million cap-hit over the next four seasons.
In defense of the Turku, Finland native, not a lot can be said for the d-partners Ristolainen has had over the years, especially early on when he saw plenty of time with Josh Gorges. Last year, however, was supposed to be different with the addition of Marco Scandella. Adding Scandella to the top-pairing turned out to be a reach and although he was a definitive upgrade over any d-man Ristolainen played with, the duo, like the rest of the team, struggled mightily.
As Ristolainen struggled, so came a lot of questions, especially because last season, for the first time in his career, he had more offensive zone starts (53%) than d-zone. By Christmas Ristolainen had yet to register a goal, had only nine assists and was a minus-nine. He looked out of touch on many occasions, had puck control problems and defensive lapses and there were some in the media proposing that he wasn't playing the system. Ristolainen was on the ice for five shorthanded goals against and 17 empty net goals against which reeked havoc on a plus/minus rating that was suffering to begin with. His -102 rating since 2013-14 is the worst in the league by eight points over Carolina's Justin Falk and is at the opposite end of the spectrum to league leader Brad Marchand who clocks in at a +105.
Having said all that, the addition of Rasmus Dahlin on the back end changes a lot of things for the team and for Ristolainen. Dahlin is an elite-skater and puck-mover who will eventually take over the No. 1 role on the team and he's expected to be one of the best defensemen in the league. If Housley likes the two Rasmuses together up top, it could send Ristolainen's numbers surging towards the positive and even if Dahlin plays the right side on the top pairing Ristolainen will be still be slotted in nicely as a very strong No. 3 on the team.
The Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup teams were anchored by a d-tandem of two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and his sidekick Brent Seabrook and it's not too far-fetched to think that with less of a role, Ristolainen could be Buffalo's version of Seabrook to Dahlin's Keith.
That's a good thing and we will probably be seeing "The Rasmi" as Buffalo's top pairing sometime early in the season. However, it probably won't happen right off the bat as it's easy to see last year's tandem of Scandella and Ristolainen begin the year as Buffalo's top defensive pairing.
Building the 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres roster:
LW, Conor Sheary
/ C, Jack Eichel
/ RW, Sam Reinhart
LHD, Marco Scandella
/ RHD, Rasmus Ristolainen