NEWARK, N.J. — A player with a big shot who should jump into the lineup next year and a big project who will add some snarl. Going defense-first with a pair of 18-year-olds, there’s your capsule scouting report on the Buffalo Sabres’ first-round picks Sunday.
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen of Finland was chosen at No. 8 and fellow blue-liner Nikita Zadorov, a Russian who played last year for the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, went at No. 16 as the Sabres held on to their two choices in the opening round.
The 6-foot-3, 201-pound Ristolainen was rated the No. 4 overall international skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau and the top-rated skating defenseman. He led his Finnish team, TPS, in scoring with three goals and 15 points while averaging more than 21 minutes per game.
“I try to play like Shea Weber,” Ristolainen said of the Nashville Predators star. “He’s like my idol. He’s a big leader on the ice, plays physical, has a good shot.”
Zadorov, who said he is 6-5½ and 225 pounds, led OHL rookies with a plus-33 ranking and finished second among rookie defensemen with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists). London won the league title and Zadorov also had a game-winning goal against Saskatoon in the Memorial Cup.
“I’m a two-way defenseman, big guy,” Zadorov said. “I play a physical game. I can do body checks and open-ice hits. I can shoot and score goals. I really like to hit.”
Ristolainen said he thought he would be taken somewhere between picks 10-15 but added he feels he’s ready to make the NHL next season.
“It was a good surprise for me,” Ristolainen said of the Sabres’ selection. “I think it’s maybe easier to get a spot on the team if they are rebuilding.”
Both players have connections to previous first-round Buffalo picks. Ristolainen is close to winger Joel Armia, the Finn the Sabres took with their first choice in 2011. At last year’s World Junior Championships, Zadorov was roommates with 2012 top pick Mikhail Grigorenko,
“Armia is a good friend for me,” Ristolainen said. “He told me Buffalo is a very good place and very nice city.”
Grigorenko wished Zadorov luck before his Russian friend came to New Jersey.
“He said, ‘I’ll be happy if you go to the Sabres,’ and I’m in the Sabres shirt right now so I think he’s happy,” Zadorov said.
The Sabres are going to need plenty of defense playing in their new division next season. In addition to the old Northeast clubs, the unnamed group will now include Detroit, Florida and Tampa Bay. After Nathan MacKinnon went first overall to Colorado, the Panthers took Finnish center Aleksander Barkov with the No. 2 pick and the Lightning got Halifax winger Jonathan Drouin at No. 3.
“That’s a pretty big deal,” said General Manager Darcy Regier. “The only good thing I suppose is that MacKinnon went out west.”
Zadorov came to Canada to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL but did it without knowing any English. With the help of teammates and a tutor, he learned the language in a few months and smoothly handled interviews Sunday.
“It was pretty tough, and not just hockey,” he said. “I didn’t know English before. It was a different country. I played here and I liked it a lot. My teammates and everyone around me helped me a lot.”