The Finnish professional league SM-Iiiga has been called the second-strongest league in Europe by the International Ice Hockey Federation. It was at the age of 16 that Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen made his pro hockey debut there with TPS Turku.
Being able to play at that level as a young kid was an early sign of how highly hockey minds in Finland thought of this son of a Finnish police officer.
In 2010-11, Rasmus would play for TPS Turku’s U-20 and U-18 teams, as well as dress for his home country at the World Hockey Championship. The progression you want and need to see out of a young player was underway, as was Ristolainen’s path to Buffalo.
Rasmus played 40 pro games with TPS’s Iiiga team in 2011-12, and he continued skating for the U-18 and U-20 teams. Rasmus was named assistant captain of the U-18 team, a sign that leadership capabilities were also growing in the then young prospect.
When the Sabres selected Ristolainen with the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, they knew what they were getting. There was little doubt in scouts’ minds that Rasmus was a gifted offensive defenseman who wanted to be involved in the play and also had a physical component to his game.
I think it’s safe to say that after just 112 games in the NHL, the Sabres got what they scouted.
In his NHL debut on Oct. 2, 2013 in Detroit, Ristolainen played over 16 minutes on 22 shifts and had three shots on goal. Over the last 14 games Rasmus played in his rookie season, he was averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game. He was clearly growing as a player.
Looking back at Ristolainen’s numbers in the 2014-15 season, what I like is the number of goals scored away from First Niagara Center. Rasmus scored eight goals last season and six of those were scored on the road.
Go back to his rookie season and you’ll see that both of his goals were scored as the visitor. Now we can play with numbers all we want in order to make a point. But as I see it, in pro sports, I want a player who is not intimidated on the road; a player who is not bothered by the fact that a must-win moment may have to take place away from the comforts of home.
There is a youthful maturity to Rasmus’ personality, too. I’ve seen it daily at the rink in the way he interacts with his teammates. He carries respect for the game and does that in the ways in which he handles himself around the veterans. And yet he keeps his youthful vigor by joking and keeping things light with fellow NHL rookies and sophomores in the room.
There were moments and natural growing pains this season when other young teammates needed reminders on how to behave like a pro on a daily basis. No one had to look far to point out someone like Rasmus who was keeping it youthful, yet when it was time to work, he was all business. I’m sure the coaching staff and veterans noticed.
Rasmus, in his own quiet and very confident way, has been a leader amongst the players that Sabres fans are counting on to lead them back to having a shot at reaching hockey’s Promised Land.
Ristolainen has a look in his eyes when he means business. Not all prospects have that look. Some are intimidated. Others think they are better than they are and then can’t find their way back to being confident after they are shown just how far they have to go in order to be an effective, everyday NHL player.
Perhaps that confidence comes from having been a 16 year old playing at such a high level, and yet also doing things the right way by playing with his peers at the U-18 and U-20 levels.
Wherever that edge and willingness to make a difference in a game comes from, Sabres fans should feel pretty good about the fact those attributes landed in Western New York.