Rasmus Ristolainen has his sights set on playing in the NHL this fall and knows it will take a lot of work to get there.
The 18-year-old defenseman, drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in this year’s NHL Draft, will make the trip to Traverse City, Mich., this week as the Sabres prepare for the 2013 NHL Prospect Tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings.
The eight-team tournament will mark the first time Ristolainen will play for the Sabres organization in a game situation. But since he signed a three-year, entry-level contract at the end of the team’s development camp in July, fans in Buffalo or Rochester could very well see a lot of him this upcoming season.
“My goal this year is [to play in the NHL] right away. That’s my main goal,” he said during development camp. “I know it’s a tough call, but if everything goes pretty well, I don’t see why I can’t get it. I trust myself a lot.”
He’s the highest drafted of the eight defensemen on the tournament roster. Mark Pysyk (23rd overall, 2010) and Nikita Zadorov (16th overall, 2013) are the other first-rounders on the blue line.
Heading into the draft, Ristolainen was ranked fourth among international skaters by NHL Central Scouting. He was praised by McKeen’s Hockey for his “heavy slap shot that finds a way to the net,” while The Hockey News projects him to be a two-way defenseman.
Ristolainen describes himself as a two-way defenseman that can play in any situation. Growing up, he admired Finnish NHL stars like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. He even had a chance to meet and practice with Koivu in Finland during the last NHL lockout.
“Actually, [it went] pretty well,” Ristolainen said. “They show how things go on the ice and they’re huge leaders.”
As he got older, he started to turn his attention toward North American defensemen. He cites Nashville captain Shea Weber and Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger as players he likes to watch. At 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds, Ristolainen has the frame to emulate those players on the ice.
“I try to play like Shea Weber,” Ristolainen said at the NHL Draft. “He’s like my idol. He’s a big leader on the ice. He plays physical and has a good shot.”
Ristolainen had a successful career overseas prior to the draft. He’s played on Team Finland’s last two teams at the IIHF World Junior Championship. At the 2013 WJC, he finished with two goals and four assists, third in tournament scoring among defensemen.
He’s been playing professionally in the SM-liiga in Finland for the past two seasons and made his professional debut at the age of 16. He’s literally been a teenager amongst men in those two years.
He recorded three goals and 12 assists in 52 games with TPS last season. That was up from three goals and five assists in 40 games the previous season. He also severely cut down his penalty minutes. He served 32 penalty minutes in 2012-13, compared to 78 in 2011-12.
However, Ristolainen will likely need to have an extremely impressive training camp in order to crack the Sabres roster in October. The team acquired Jamie McBain from Carolina (in exchange for Andrej Sekera) at the NHL Draft in June, to add to fellow righties Tyler Myers and Pysyk. Chad Ruhwedel, an undrafted college player who signed with the Sabres late last season, is another right-handed shot that will compete for a roster spot. Ruhwedel is going to Traverse City, too.
“Ristolainen’s a right shot and we’ll give him every opportunity, but he is 18,” Sabres assistant general manager Kevin Devine said in July. “We’ve got three guys [in Myers, Pysyk and McBain] that proved they can play in the NHL, so we’ll just see at training camp.”
The Sabres acquired veteran Henrik Tallinder from the Devils in July and re-signed Alexander Sulzer, while returnees Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Weber are also expected to play big roles on the blue line. Brayden McNabb, who is recovering from a knee injury that occurred in March, is in the mix as well.
Even with the numbers game in mind, Ristolainen is confident in his ability to play in the Sabres lineup come Oct. 2 in Detroit and hopes for a memorable opening night.
“I’d try to play my own game,” he said. “Make passes to forwards and try – in the offensive zone – to get some shots. I’d hope for a couple goals.”
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