on July 11, 2013 - 11:48 PM
Rasmus Ristolainen slicked black his sweat-soaked, golden blond hair and slipped a grey Sabres baseball cap backward on his head. His blue eyes scanned the locker room, surveying the scene as nearly a dozen reporters shot flash photos, their lights exposing every pore on his 18-year-old face.
Still a boy in many ways, Ristolainen is expected to be a man – if not one day The Man – with the Buffalo Sabres.
Buffalo’s first selection in the 2013 NHL Draft, the eighth overall pick, spoke to reporters Wednesday following the first day of Sabres development camp, which marked his first time publicly skating as a member of the team in First Niagara Center. He reflected on how it felt to sport an NHL sweater, a longtime dream.
Naturally, there were nerves. Or were there?
“Not actually,” said Ristolainen, the Finnish defenseman. “It’s, like, normal stuff for hockey players to be on the ice.”
Ristolainen has been among the 38 prospects at the camp, which concludes today with the Blue-Gold scrimmage. It is open to the public and begins at 4 p.m. in First Niagara Center. The $10 admission charge includes entry to a 10,000 Maniacs concert at Canalside after the game.
Approximately 500 fans took in the action Wednesday, their first opportunity to evaluate Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, the Sabres’ other first-round selection (No. 16 overall).
There are similarities between the two first-rounders. Both are tall, Zadorov at 6-foot-5 and Ristolainen at 6-foot-4. Neither is Tyler Myers-sized but both are imposing. Zadorov is a bit more comfortable speaking English.
Zadorov is expected to need at least another year before reaching the NHL but Ristolainen is hoping for a roster spot, which the Sabres have said is a possibility though they have eight defensemen who played in the NHL last season.
It seems Ristolainen is in a group of six defenders battling for four roster spots.
“It’s a hard call, but it’s my goal,” Ristolainen said. “I’m trying to get to the team. It’s hard, but I need to work very hard to get that time. I’m ready for that.”
Another similarity between them is that neither will play for the Rochester Americans if they don’t play in Buffalo. Zadorov must return to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and Ristolainen said he will return to Finland if he failed to make the Sabres.
“I’ve got a contract with my hometown team,” he said of TPS Turku of the SM-Liiga.
Zadorov, who turned 18 in April, is the fifth-youngest player at camp (Ristolainen is the eighth-youngest). Zadorov has been in Buffalo nine days and said he believes Buffalo is “a great city and great place to play hockey.” He seemed more in awe of the moment than Ristolainen following his first day with the Sabres.
“It feels great,” Zadorov said. “It’s an NHL rink. This dressing room, it’s amazing.
“You sit here and you’re here right now. You just need to work hard if you want to play in the NHL, and it’s my dream.”
Ristolainen, given fans’ excitement regarding the possibility of him making the squad, was in the spotlight the entire first day of development camp. He was the reason for the only two noticeable fan reactions.
When he followed a poke check with a body check to shut down center Kevin Sundher in a one-on-one drill, there were cheers. When center Alex Iafallo blew by Ristolainen his very next time out and scored a beautiful drag-across-the-crease goal, there was even more noise.
Ristolainen spent the last two years in the SM-liiga, the top league in Finland, and had 15 points in 52 games last season. He had a minus-7 rating.
He also played for Finland at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.
Zadorov, considered more of a skilled defenseman though he is quick to point out how much he loves hitting, played his first season in North America last year with London. He amassed 25 points and a plus-33 rating in 63 games.