Buffalo - August 6, 2014 - We’re still about two months out from actual NHL hockey (the horror!), so there’s still a lot of time and boredom left to deal with.
As a Sabres fan, there isn’t a ton to look forward to even when the season starts. Instead, the eye is constantly towards the future. Everyone knows the Sabres aren’t winning any time soon, but the good part of being so bad is that they have a plethora of talented youngsters who will theoretically turn the Sabres into a Stanley Cup contender for many years to come.
We’ll take a look at the top prospects in the Sabres system and all of the dirty details on each, continuing today with the top defensive prospect in the system: Rasmus Ristolainen.
How we got him: Before things were fully blown up in Buffalo, the Sabres were in the process of only being pretty bad during the lockout-shortened 2012/13 season, landing the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. There, they took Ristolainen, considered the top defenseman left on the board after Seth Jones and Darnell Nurse came off the board in the first seven picks.
Comparable Sabre of the Past: Mike Ramsey. It’s a little bit hard to find a comparable for Ristolainen because he might be the most complete defensive prospect the Sabres have ever had. Like Ramsey, he’s at his best in his own zone (Ramsey was a four-time All-Star known for his shutdown defensive abilities, scoring just 345 points in 1,070 games) and uses his body well. Risto shows a little more offensive punch and an ability to handle the puck than Ramsey ever did, so ideally he’s Ramsey-plus.
Why he may be awesome: He’s got the frame of a prototypical defenseman (6’4” 210) and he’s only going to keep growing into it. He knows how to use his size well and could become a physical force if he develops more of a mean streak.
More importantly, he’s a very smart defenseman who excels at defense first, making the smart play more times than not. Strong in puck possession, he’s calm and smart while making a good, solid breakout pass. He’s not going to be the guy that turns the puck over often in his own zone.
Offensively, he shows potential. He shows a willingness to join the rush and his skating is strong not only for someone of his size but in general. Mobility goes a long way for big defensemen and Ristolainen has it in spades.
Why he may not be so great: For all the compliments he gets on his offensive game, it’s not a certainty that he’ll pan out in that department. He’s still figuring himself out in the offensive zone, though he has drawn favorable comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman in terms of his overall game.
Also, while he draws raves for his defensive work, some feel that he struggles to position himself in the defensive end and whether or not he can control the play at both ends of the ice. These are things he will ideally pick up with age and experience.
Ceiling: Very high. If he puts everything together, he has the ability to be an elite top-two defenseman who does it all. Ristolainen has the size and skill to be a special player in the NHL, it’s just a matter of figuring everything out and putting it together.
General excitement level: High. He’s received mostly positive reviews since draft day and didn’t look lost in his cup of coffee with the Sabres last season. With time, experience and the right coaching, he could be the franchise defenseman the Sabres never really had – ever. With all due respect to Ramsey and Phil Housley, the Sabres haven’t had this complete of a package at defense in their history.
What to expect: With the sudden veteran depth on the blueline and the plethora of prospects in line to make a dent with the big club, Ristolainen will not be rushed. If he shows he’s ready for the big time on a full-time basis this year, he’ll have a spot. If he needs a little more seasoning in Rochester of the AHL, the Sabres won’t hesitate to send him back and let him eat huge minutes with the farm club. Expect him to challenge for a roster spot in camp, wind up back in Rochester and be one of the first to come up for injury call-ups.
Follow me on Twitter: @2PSBlog