Rasmus Ristolainen (Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
Training camp is close and the Buffalo Sabres have yet to lock up restricted free agents Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen, but coach Dan Bylsma said talks with the two players are heading in the right direction.
The Sabres have been active this off-season, signing Kyle Okposo and bringing Dmitry Kulikov aboard to solidify their defense, but there are still two familiar faces yet to be locked up to new contracts to start next season in Buffalo.
With roughly a month until the start of training camp, Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen are still without contracts for the 2016-17 campaign. Both remain restricted free agents as the summer winds on, but Sabres coach Dan Bylsma told Buffalo’s WGR 550 that he believes contract talks are heading in the right direction for Girgensons and Ristolainen.
“I think it’s a normal talk right now between the two groups — between both Rasmus and Zemgus,” Bylsma said on WGR 550’s Hockey Hotline. “Those are things that I don’t get too much involved in, but I know they’re progressing. I know we’re talking. They do take time.”
However, the time it is taking to get these deals figured out is a bit worrisome, especially in the case of Ristolainen.
This past season, Ristolainen inarguably had the best season of his career. The 21-year-old rearguard posted nine goals and 41 points in 82 games — more than doubling his previous career-high — and took on a huge chunk of minutes for the Sabres. Ristolainen’s average ice time was 25:16, and it wasn’t rare to see him inch closer to the 30-minute mark during a given outing.
The one knock against Ristolainen has been his ability to control possession and drive play, but Bylsma said the team isn’t overly concerned about the defenseman’s underlying numbers because he was played in so many “tough situations” over the 2015-16 campaign.
“Largely some of the numbers that do roll out on him, in terms of Corsi and possession, are a result of that,” Bylsma told WGR 550. “Frankly, we played him too much at times throughout the year. He’s not going to like to hear this, but he’s not a guy we think should get 28, 30 minutes a night, although we did it to him. Once we got Zach Bogosian back, (Ristolainen’s) fell more to the 24, 25 minutes a night, which is where I think you’ll see him be at this year. His numbers will improve, I think, as a result of it.”
It should be easy for the Sabres to lessen Ristolainen’s minutes next season, too. With Kulikov in town, as well as Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Cody Franson and Jake McCabe, there are number of defensemen who can step into a top-four role on any given night, and giving Ristolainen more time to grow into a top-pairing defenseman can’t hurt.
As far as Girgensons goes, his contract situation is interesting in that rumors have come and gone about him potentially leaving the NHL and heading overseas. Girgensons himself has shut those rumors down, but the 22-year-old center might not be in line for exactly the kind of deal he’s after in Buffalo. In fact, he may have to prove himself on a short-term deal in order to stay in Buffalo.
Girgensons production fell from 15 goals and 30 points in 61 games during the 2014-15 campaign to just seven goals and 18 points in 71 outings this past season. His ice time dropped by more than four minutes from one year to the next, too, and it’s clear the Sabres are having a tough time figuring out exactly where Girgensons fits moving forward.
Regardless of what deal Girgensons or Ristolainen signs, though, Bylsma sounds confident that both will be ready to suit up come training camp.
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