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Ristolainen making big impression with Sabres

by Joe Yerdon / NHL.com

BUFFALO -- Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been a revelation for the Buffalo Sabres this season, breaking out in a big way and delivering on the potential that made him a first-round pick three years ago.

Ristolainen, 21, is a completely different player than the one who struggled last season in his first full tour of duty in the NHL. This season, he leads the Sabres in average time on-ice with 24:48 per game and tied his NHL career-high in goals when he scored his eighth of the season in a 3-2 win against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday.

He already has a career-high in points (29) and is second in scoring on the Sabres behind forward Ryan O'Reilly, who is their representative in the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game.

A change in team structure instituted by coach Dan Bylsma, who replaced Ted Nolan this summer, has helped Ristolainen develop, according to defenseman Josh Gorges.

"Last year, it seemed like we're all over the place as a group, as a team, and he's probably no different," said Gorges, who is Ristolainen's defense partner. "Whereas this year, he's really taking control of his own game and trying to get better and using those details of stick position, feet position, when to attack, when to be patient, finding plays; all those little things has made the structure in his game.

"When he has that base, his skill and talent is able to do the rest of the work. When he gets those little things down, he's now able to do those things that make you go, 'Wow, he's a special player.'"

After playing 34 games for Buffalo in 2013-14, Ristolainen struggled in his first full-time shot with the Sabres. His minus-32 rating was the worst on the team. But this season has been a huge turnaround.

Now he likely is on the short list of players being considered for Finland's roster at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which will take place in Toronto in September.

"Of all the parts that have gotten better, I think the most is the defensive-zone game," Ristolainen said. "I think I play better defense than I did last year. I've been playing against other teams' top lines and most of the nights I've done pretty well and I just try to still get better and there's a lot of games left."

The path toward improvement looks clear of obvious obstacles. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound defenseman is growing into his body but certainly has the skills to be dominant, according to those who watch him on a daily basis.

"He's a big man who can skate," Bylsma said. "He's a big-bodied guy and he uses it in all aspects of his game. I think [when] he goes back for pucks, he's strong and skates away from danger. Last game in Minnesota, he's a big-body defender thrown in a battle with [Zach] Parise and [Mikko] Koivu at the net down low and that's been impressive.

"But the other thing is, he's really impressed me with his willingness and [his desire] to want to get better and want to grow as a defender. It's an insatiable appetite he has for wanting to be better and wanting to be the best."

Ristolainen has shown his strength on the power play. He has scored four power-play goals and has eight assists. His ability to handle the puck, read plays, and get off a hard shot has made him a viable quarterback.

Sabres defenseman Cody Franson said he believes it is the versatility shown by Ristolainen from the point on the power play that has served the Sabres so well. Ristolainen has the ability to uncork a hard shot, hoping for a clean goal, or feather one in an attempt to create rebounds for his forwards.

"He's been fortunate in having a couple go in for him," Franson said. "I think he's developing at a pretty high rate right now and he's playing well."

Ristolainen's possession metrics also have greatly improved. Ristolainen's shots-attempted percentage, a metric to determine possession of the puck, improved from 36.92 percent in 2014-15 to 45.59 percent this season, despite the fact he's playing against better competition.

"I think it's his ability to make good, clean passes in his end under pressure," Gorges said. "It's the hardest thing for a [defenseman] to do; you're going back for a dumped puck, you've got a guy coming in trying to crush you, you're trying to read the forecheck, find out where our guys are and still make the play.

"There's a select few guys in the League that can do that all the time and he's starting to become one of those guys. You watch him go back, he knows what he wants to do with it, he puts himself in a position where he's able to do it, and then he goes out and makes the play. That's not an easy thing to do and I think he does it extremely well."

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