It seems the scouts and draft analysts knew what they were talking about. They said Rasmus Ristolainen was an NHL-ready prospect, someone who might be able to come into his first training camp and earn a roster spot.
Ristolainen is not locked in yet, but he sure looks like he belongs.
Ristolainen, selected eighth overall by the Sabres in June, has brought a mature game to Buffalo’s camp. The big defenseman impresses during practice and held his own during his preseason debut Sunday. He’ll likely get another chance tonight when the Sabres visit the Columbus Blue Jackets (7 p.m., Radio 550 AM).
If Ristolainen keeps doing well, he could be on the opening-day roster Oct. 2.
“I think I’m ready,” Ristolainen said Monday. “I think my style is the kind that I can play right away. That’s my goal. I set this goal at the start of summer, and I was working all summer to make the team.”
Ristolainen’s confidence comes from fitting in immediately. The 18-year-old spent the last two seasons playing professionally in his native Finland. He arrived in Buffalo as a mature adult, not a wide-eyed teen who’s just happy to be on the ice.
“He’s a man, an 18-year-old man,” said defense partner Mike Weber. “He’s a big boy, skates pretty well, moves the puck really well. He’s smart. It’s exciting for Sabres fans to have a big guy like that come in, and we get to see how he looks against other men.”
The 6-foot-4, 224-pounder has the size to compete. The skills are a match.
One recent drill by the Sabres featured forwards entering the zone with a three-on-one mismatch. Ristolainen quickly tracked puck-carrier Tyler Ennis, took away his passing options and forced the forward into the boards. He gave Ennis a shove to the back of the head for good measure.
“You can tell just the way he plays out there that he’s played pro hockey,” coach Ron Rolston said. “He just puts himself in good spots, moves pucks quickly. If there’s a guy there, the puck is on his tape. It’s a pretty mature game for his age.”
Ristolainen’s positioning has drawn rave reviews. The rinks are wider in Europe, so defenders who don’t take the right angle can look foolish. Ristolainen has quickly adapted to the smaller North American rinks and rarely lets anyone get around him.
“I’ve got a lot of experience that I can use here,” he said. “The speed was OK. It’s not too bad for me.”
About the only thing going against Ristolainen is the Sabres’ crowd on defense.
In addition to the rookie, they have Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Weber, Henrik Tallinder, Mark Pysyk, Chad Ruhwedel, Jamie McBain, Alexander Sulzer and Brayden McNabb vying for six starting roles and up to eight roster spots.
“We have 10 defensemen coming into camp that can make the hockey team,” Rolston said. “If we keep eight, there’s going to be two players that are on the outside. There’s a lot of competition, and that’s what we want. We don’t want our young players to be just expecting that they’re going to be the next guy into that next hole.”
Ristolainen hasn’t been intimidated on the ice, and he’s not afraid of the competition.
“There’s a lot of good D, and it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s hard, but I trust myself. I think if everything goes well and I do everything I can then I think I’ve got a chance.”
Rolston will keep giving him chances.
“He’s got to get consistency and just keep doing it,” the coach said. “For all these young guys, they had a good start and have had a good camp so far. It’s just putting those days together.
“We’re going to watch our young players a lot. You’ll get to see those guys a lot. We’re going to try to do as much as we can to give those guys opportunities in the right spots.”
Ryan Miller is expected to start in goal for the Sabres tonight. Matt Hackett, who relieved Jhonas Enroth midway through the opener, will replace Miller during the second period. The Sabres will have some players make their preseason debuts, like Ehrhoff, but the young players like Ristolainen are the ones to watch.