When you crack open the book on the 2015-2016 Buffalo Sabres, amply self-glossed, ‘The Next Chapter,’ the table of contents is chock-full o’ names we’ve all heard nationally – some for their college hockey domination, like Jack Eichel, some for their alleged lockerroom issues, like Evander Kane, and some for their ability to avoid penalties for most of a season, like Ryan O’Reilly. We’ve got war-torn vets like Jamie McGinn and David Legwand. There are fresh starts for guys like Cody Franson. Somewhere, lost in all of those names is the guy that we are hanging our hopes on, even if we don’t know it. Rasmus Ristolainen has quietly become one of the most interesting players on the Buffalo roster, even if no one has really noticed.
If you haven’t noticed, shame on you. Since GM Tim Murray finally shipped Tyler Myers to greener (whiter?) pastures, Risto has unquestionably been our number one defensemen. Buffalo – the city and the team – seemed hesitant to crown him that, sticking with old fallbacks like Mike Weber, but it wasn’t true. It’s never been true. Risto strolled in and ripped Excalibur from the stone, proving his right to the mantle of number one.
At this point, it almost doesn’t matter who he’s paired with, who he’s playing behind, or who is playing behind him. On a team that is currently 23 in the league, Rasmus is top 10 in defensive scoring and assists, and top 20 in ice time and shifts per game. He is in the company of PK Subban, Shea Weber, Erik Karlsson, and the kid is just 21. The baby-faced back-checker has the stats of these all-star veterans, and the play to back it up.
If there is one thing that Ristolainen has that always seemed to escape his predecessor in Myers, it’s the ability to recover – in more ways than one. Both Risto and Myers have an offensive mind, but Myers wasn’t always able to quickly transition if he got caught in the offensive zone. Ristolainen excels at getting deep, and getting back – quite a feat for a guy playing over 24 minutes a night and over 30 shifts a game. Rasmus is also mentally tougher than Myers. Myers’ game always seemed to break down the moment he made a mistake, whereas Ristolainen hits the bench and resets immediately. He may have a bad shift or two, but rarely does he have a bad game.
For a long time, once Buffalo got down on the scoreboard, they stayed down. It wasn’t a lack of effort, really, but a lack of believing they could come back. Risto’s mental fortitude is a big reason the Sabres have mounted several comebacks this season. The comebacks don’t always end in wins, but they frequently end with Buffalo earning at least the loser point. The Sabres will get down, but they are never down and out.
In Tuesday night’s game against the Red Wings, after being down by two goals twice by the five minute mark of the second period, Buffalo came back to take the lead in the third. Ristolainen had three assists from the blue line – two on the power play. At 21 years old, and in just his second full season in the big leagues, Risto is quarterback of Buffalo’s power play unit (which is currently fifth in the league converting at a 22.5% clip.
There is a lot that can be said about Risto’s statistical performance so far this season, but that doesn’t tell the complete story. The fierce Finn is a force in front of our netminders, and will never back down from a player invading our crease. He stares at them with his cold, dead eyes, daring them to flinch. If they need some extra incentive, he’s not afraid to offer a nice cross check to send the opponent on their way.
Buffalo’s record isn’t stellar – we’re a few points out of the playoff hunt, for sure. We had a big December last season, and a repeat of that could propel us into the mix, even if it’s a short-lived trip. Despite the win-loss record of the team, the games are exciting. No one is turning them off after a bad first period, cursing the television and the wretched hope living deep within their hearts that just won’t die. Everyone is tuning in to see kids like Ristolainen take this team on their back and march forward, never giving up. This is hard-working hockey. This is determined hockey. This is strong-willed, hard-hearted hockey. THIS is Buffalo hockey.