After finishing 22nd in goals against en route to missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year, the Buffalo Sabres made a heavy blue-line investment in the 2013 NHL draft and it all started with Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen at No. 8 overall.
The 6-4, 207-pounder has already honed his skills in Finland’s Elite League for two seasons and is coming off a campaign that saw him score three goals and 15 points while averaging 21 minutes over 52 games. Despite being just 18 years old, many think Ristolainen already has the attributes to contribute at the NHL level sooner rather than later.
“He plays that physical style and played big minutes with a team that that didn’t do very well, and was the leading defenseman there,” NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. “He’s a mobile, strong, offensive-minded defenseman with very good puck-handling and passing skills. He’s young, but he knows how to use his size and strength. He’s one of the best young defensemen in Europe in his age group. He’s a leader on the ice and plays with confidence.”
Ristolainen has professed his adulation of Chris Pronger and it makes sense as Ristolainen possesses the skills of a two-way defenseman. Ristolainen has already received his praise himself as Central Scout’s fourth-rated European prospect in 2013, but Ristolainen still knows there are elements of his game that would need to improve on American pro ice.
“I understand you have to have speed to do the things you want to do because everything comes faster [in the NHL],” Ristolainen said. “You have to pass faster and have to keep your head up all the time. When I’m offensive, I have to get the puck through to the net.”
Ristolainen could eventually join the team’s 18th overall pick, Nikita Zadorov, and young acquisition Jamie McBain as key defensive components of the Sabres’ future.