Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen stood out from the crowd at an August junior evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. -- and not just because the 17-year-old blueliner checks in at 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds.
Ristolainen excelled in all phases of the game during his week playing with and against some of the top talent in his age group. Many scouts have him pegged as a first-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. NHL Central Scouting ranked him as an A player on its preliminary players to watch list, meaning he has the potential to be a first-round pick.
Finnish defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen combines a solid frame with a skill set that features physical ability, some offensive flair and improved play in his own zone. (Photo: Getty Images)
"He's a mobile, strong, offensive-minded defenseman with very good puck-handling and passing skills," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's young, but he knows how to use his size and strength. He's one of the best young defensemen in Europe in his age group. He's a leader on the ice and plays with confidence."
In 40 games last season with TPS in SM-liiga, the top Finnish pro league, he had three goals, five assists and a minus-21 rating on a team that finished 10th in the 14-team league.
He also saw time with Finland at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he had three assists in seven games to help his country to a fourth-place finish, its best since 2006. He also had two goals and an assist in seven games for Finland at the 2012 World Under-18 Championship.
That's a lot of hockey for one season -- he also played eight games for the TPS team in the Finnish under-20 league -- but Ristolainen said in hindsight it was a good experience.
"When the season started I didn't expect that I would get that much ice time, but it was pretty nice," he told NHL.com. "The guys were bigger [in SM-liiga] than juniors, and then in the World Juniors it was nice."
Ristolainen needed all the extra action, considering he didn't start playing defense until he nearly was a teenager.
"I started there [defense] at 12 or 13 years old," he said. "Before, I played winger."
Why the position change?
"I was too slow for a winger," he said.
He's certainly picked up the new position quickly and is a big part of TPS' hopes for improvement this season. The team was off to a slow start, with five points in its first eight games to sit 14th in the standings, and Ristolainen had four assists, four penalty minutes and a minus-2 rating.
He's also expected to play a big role for Finland at the 2013 WJC. He had one assist in six games at the August camp in Lake Placid, but only so much stock can be placed in summer hockey. The fact that he was paired for most of the time with team captain and Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick Olli Maatta said more about Ristolainen's role on the team that will make the trip to Ufa, Russia, for this year's World Juniors, which will be held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2013.
"He's a mobile, strong, offensive-minded defenseman with very good puckhandling and passing skills. He's young, but he knows how to use his size and strength."
-- NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb
"I saw him last season when he stepped up in the men's league," Finland WJC coach Harri Rindell told NHL.com. "He was a really good playmaker. If he needs to improve something it was his defensive game. But now I can see, and I have been talking with his coach, and he was very satisfied. That summer he practiced … the muscles are much more bigger now. He's an assistant captain."
Maatta said he's looking forward to skating alongside Ristolainen.
"I've played him a lot and I know him well," Maatta told NHL.com. "He's a great player to play with. He makes good plays and makes you feel better, gets you more time. He's a little bit nasty in the [defensive] zone, gets big hits, which I don't do. I think we do well [together]."
The physical aspect of the game is something Ristolainen enjoys, saying he models his game after Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger.
"I like to play physical and nasty and keep the puck and score," Ristolainen said. "I'm good at keeping the puck and passing. I think I'm good on [the] power play. I have a pretty good shot."
NHL scouts certainly have noticed and will be out in force to chronicle Ristolainen's season. However, he said he's going to do his best to block that out and focus on playing his game.
"I know that they're here, the scouts, but I don't care about that," he said. "I just play and keep focused for that."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK