By John Giustino
Over the course of the 2016-2017 season, Rasmus Rstolainen saw increased playing time against more difficult competition, and during that time he posted a respectable forty-five points over seventy-nine games. Healthy the entire season and only missing three games due to suspension, he was relied upon by the coaching staff to shoulder the most ice time by any Sabres defenseman that year with a whopping average of 26:28 through 79 games and an average of 20:17 during even strength.
While the above accomplishments are definitely impressive, there are some glaring concerns that one should take a look at. During the same season, Ristolainen was on the ice for 1,757 even strength shots and attempts against compared to only 1,387 even strength shots and attempts for. These numbers indicate that while on the ice, Ristolainen allows for several more shots against than for, leading one to assume that his shot suppression ability is subpar, which must be worked on if he is going to be employed as a top pairing defenseman for the Sabres. It may be beneficial for him to improve puck retrieval and stick work when engaging attacking skaters, which would result in the inability of the attacker to put more shots on net.
There is some hope that with the additions of new defensemen and rounding out of current young in-house defensemen, Ristolainen will not have to shoulder as much ice time. This would mean that all three lines can be relied upon easier, eliminating the need to squeeze the first pairing so hard every game, potentially exhausting those players needlessly. Another possible method could be pairing Ristolainen with a partner who has shown ability to suppress shots and attempts from attacking skaters, allowing Ristolainen to press the play offensively after successfully shutting down a rush or cycle; it is no secret that he is effectively offensively. These potential changes would lead to more effective use of Ristolainen during the time he is on the ice, and would likely show a better statistical outcome. The potential of a more north-south and better pace play as advertised by new head coach Phil Housley could in itself show more positivity; it is better to drive play and sustain pressure than sit back and wait on the opposition.
While the above is true and there are some deficiencies in his game, Rasmus Ristolainen is still one of the franchise’s best young defensemen and still has some growing to do as a player as defensemen usually take longer to fully develop and achieve peak performance years. Buffalo has yet to see the best days of his career and the current Sabres core. One should expect him to make more progressive strides this coming season being a player the team will rely upon for solid and stable play.