He’s still just 19 and Rasmus Ristolainen is already a national hero in his native Finland. Just imagine what they’ll think of him in his homeland once he forges a full-time NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres’ No. 1 draft pick last June is back grinding away with the Rochester Amerks but will never forget his golden goal – the overtime winner over Sweden that won last month’s World Junior Championships for the Finns on Sweden’s home turf in Malmo.
There’s a pretty big hockey tournament cranking up this week in Sochi, Russia, and Ristolainen will be hoping his senior countrymen can conjure some of the magic he pulled off at the junior event.
“That was my first big, big win in my career. It feels great,” Ristolainen told The News over the weekend while the Amerks were in First Niagara Center for a game against Grand Rapids. “I will always remember that, no matter what I do. It was a huge couple weeks, a huge thing for our team. I have big respect for what that goal means.
“It was so nice to hear so many Finnish people watched the game and celebrated with us. It was really good for everybody, a great moment for our country.”
There were celebrations of the win back home for several days and then Ristolainen returned to Rochester to continue the quest to get back to the NHL.
It’s been an up-and-down season for him, opening in the NHL with the Sabres as an 18-year-old, getting sent down after Ted Nolan replaced Ron Rolston as coach, missing some time with the Amerks due to a concussion suffered when he was sucker-punched during an altercation, heading overseas and then finally coming back.
“What he’s gone through would be tough for any 19-year-old. He’s absolutely had a whirlwind year,” said Amerks coach Chadd Cassidy. “He’s starts in Buffalo, comes to us, got hurt, went right to World Juniors and then comes back to us. That’s a lot.”
Ristolainen had a goal on Oct. 25 against Florida, his only NHL point thus far, and posted a minus-4 rating in 19 games for Buffalo. He averaged 17 minutes, 13 seconds of ice time and even cleared 20 minutes twice. He’s played 16 games in Rochester, collecting three goals and seven points and also posting a minus-4.
The 6-foot-4 Ristolainen is like any rookie. He can be up and down from game to game and shift to shift. Take Saturday’s game the Amerks played here against Grand Rapids. He scored Rochester’s only goal in the 5-1 loss with a blistering shot from the left point – but the performance was far overshadowed by his career-worst minus-4 rating.
Ristolainen was caught looking for offense on a couple of plays and was unable to get back as an experienced Grand Rapids club, the defending Calder Cup champions, took advantage of his youth on the blue line.
“He doesn’t know the league and probably felt like it would be easy,” Cassidy said. “You’ll get knocked down a few times, really tested in the American League.”
The Amerks are off for the AHL’s All-Star break and return to action Friday night when they host Utica in Blue Cross Arena. They went 8-2 in their final 10 games before the break.
“Everybody has gotten on the same page. We have really skilled players and everyone is working good together,” Ristolainen said. “This is good for me. I’m getting power-play time, lots of chances. I have a good shot, and I like to pass the puck. It’s been a nice chance here.”
In the World Juniors, Ristolainen was a dominant force on the blue line and was named the tourney’s most valuable defenseman.
“He could go and do whatever he wanted at that level. He could just dominate,” Cassidy said. “Those guys aren’t as big. Here, guys are heavy and stronger, and it will be even more so at the NHL level. This experience is going to be really important for him. We want him to be ready for that level because it was obvious he really wasn’t at the start of the year.”
Ristolainen isn’t so sure he was that out of place in the NHL but understands why the last-place Sabres have him stashed in Rochester.
“I didn’t think it was that difficult to try playing right away,” he said. “I know not a lot of people do it, and it was a tough start for me at times, but I felt I was getting better every game, too.”
Ristolainen said he keenly watched a couple games involving Team Russia during the World Juniors. Fellow first-round pick and Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov, now back with London of the Ontario Hockey League, made the all-star team in Malmo while playing for Russia.
“It was a nice honor for the Sabres that two of their ‘bigs’ were all-stars. That’s good for us,” Ristolainen said. “I want to keep getting better because being here for Buffalo Sabres is my big dream. When I get here next time, hopefully soon, I will try to stay.”