The young Sabres defenseman returns with a new contract, increased expectations and a spicy opinion about chicken wings
Rasmus Ristolainen is starting off this campaign the same way he ended last year’s effort: playing a ton of minutes and providing the Buffalo Sabres with offense from the back end. It’s still pre-natally early, but the big, strapping 21-year-old is playing 25 minutes a night for the Sabres and has four points through two games. Taking on a burden is something he’s more than happy to do.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Ristolainen said. “The more ice time I get, the better I am. You always want to play as much as you can and help your team that way.”
Recently signed to a six-year deal worth $5.4 million per season, Ristolainen is now Buffalo’s highest-paid defenseman and his teammates know that he’s worth the investment.
“He's a physical player and tough to play against,” said center Jack Eichel. “He always gets the other team's top lines.”
The challenge for Ristolainen now is to continue rising. As a young blueliner, expectations surrounding him should be tempered, despite his potential once he hits his prime. The analytics crowd isn’t sold on the Finnish national, citing his poor possession numbers, though the quality of competition he faces has been very high in the past. I’m not going to wade into the morass right now, but let’s all agree that the 6-foot-4, 207-pounder is intriguing, to say the least. And the kid is not just sitting back counting his money after leading Buffalo’s blueline with 41 points in 2015-16.
“Last year was pretty good,” Ristolainen said. “It was the right step for the next level. This year I want to be better and get to the next step again.”
On the ice, it’s easy to see progress. But Ristolainen has also grown up away from the rink, too. Adjusting to North American culture can take some time, especially for a player who jumped straight from home into the NHL – there was no major junior or USHL/NCAA stepping stone for Ristolainen, who came over from TPS Turku in 2013.
“I really like the city,” he said. “First year I didn’t really know people or any of the places, but now I’ve got friends outside of hockey, too. The fans are great and the organization is first-class.”
Of course he knows all the classic Buffalo restaurants already, but in one surprise, he’s got a hot take on chicken wings – the sports bar staple so closely associated with the city.
“Actually, I like Finnish wings more,” he said. “I think they’re hotter. They’re a little smaller and the sauce is better.”
This was particularly surprising to me, since I couldn’t find a dash of spice in Helsinki when I was there for the world juniors, but perhaps Turku is a different beast. Hopefully the good folks of Buffalo can accept Ristolainen’s agree-to-disagree stance on wings – as it seems as though he’s a pretty easy guy to get along with overall.
“He's pretty quiet for the most part,” Eichel said. “Sometimes he's a little bit of a smart-ass. But all the guys enjoy being around him, he's a good guy.”
And based on the work and minutes he loves to put in on the ice, it’s not hard to see him get his due from Buffalo’s fans. The Sabres have already shown their love with the big-money contract and now Ristolainen intends on upholding his end of the sale.