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by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

After coming off the ice from his first practice of Training Camp, Rasmus Ristolainen smiled when he was asked where he’d most like to improve in his third NHL season. His answer, albeit a general one, was concise.

“Offensive zone … defensive zone … everywhere,” he said.

Now more than a quarter of a way into the season, his answer was remarkably similar when asked what areas of his game have grown.

“I think my whole two-way game,” he said. “Offensive zone’s been better and then [in] the defensive zone, I think I’ve been helping the team more than the couple years before.”

Indeed, Ristolainen appears to be budding into a top defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres at age 21. On the score sheet, it’s easy to see. His 17 points – which, by the way, are only three shy of his 78-game total from last season – ranks 10th among the League’s defensemen.

In Tuesday’s overtime loss in Detroit, he picked up three assists and was on the ice for all four of the Buffalo’s goals. He led all skaters in that game with 27:55 of ice time, and his average ice time of 24:15 leads the Sabres.

Yet, for all of the improvements Ristolainen has made in his offensive game, his coach believes that he’s made even greater strides defensively.

“Really, the growth has been in his defending,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “You can look at his point total and see where he’s at on our team ... to say he’s doing a lot of good things. But I see more of the growth on his defensive game and what he can be as a defender. He’s playing against the best players every night and he’s taken that as a challenge.

“I don’t know how I view the points. They’re a result of some good play with the puck; they’re not a result of him being a fantastic offensive defenseman or a risk taker. They’ve come right in the midst of playing against other teams’ best players and he’s done it solid and in a great way.”

Bylsma said that Ristolainen has been, along with partner Josh Gorges, the team’s most physical defenseman. It’s an impressive statement considering the fact that he’s has yet to take a penalty through 25 games.

Seven other players have played at least 20 games without taking a penalty, including Sabres forward Johan Larsson, but none of them have even eclipsed 500 minutes of ice time. Ristolainen has played 606:12. Only 13 skaters in the NHL have played more minutes.

“I try to play hard, work hard and win the battles but I guess I’ve done a pretty good job when I haven’t gotten any penalties yet,” he said.

It’s wise to temper the expectations put on any 21-year-old player. But if Ristolainen keeps doing what he’s doing, playing at a high level against the best the opposition has to offer, that in itself will be a feat.

“Stardom’s a big word to put on any player,” Bylsma said. “But I think he’s a big-time player. We’re going to count on him to defend and to be out against the best players in the world every night and I don’t know if that’s going to be stardom but that’s what were counting on him to do and he’s doing a great job of it at this point of time.”

As for his streak of penalty-free hockey … well, let’s hope it hasn’t been jinxed.

“I don’t look at it that he hasn’t taken any penalties,” Bylsma said. “But I’m now worried about the penalty kill, having to deal with a penalty in the game tomorrow against Arizona.”

The Sabres announced Thursday that the team has assigned forward Tim Schaller to the Rochester Americans, their American Hockey League affiliate.

Schaller played in six games since being recalled on Oct. 26, tallying two assists.

Bylsma updated the statuses of both forward Tyler Ennis and defenseman Mark Pysyk as week-to-week after both players were absent from the Sabres’ practice on Thursday. Pysyk has missed seven games with a bone bruise in his lower body while Ennis has missed four with an upper-body injury.

While Pysyk simply hasn’t healed the way the team originally hoped, Bylsma said that Ennis is making progress in his recovery.

“Tyler is getting better and there is some progress he’s making. He has worked out off the ice,” the coach said. “He’s in the week range.”

Goaltender Robin Lehner, who has missed 24 games since sustaining a high ankle sprain in the team’s season opener on Oct. 8, is making progress in week eight of his recovery.

“He has gone through a good period over the last little bit where he has progressed and he is doing much better,” Bylsma said.

“Again, dealing with a high ankle sprain with a goaltender, every time you go down you are in a tough position for a goaltender. While he’s working out and he is doing well, it takes some time before he can progress to actually make a save, going down in that position.”

9 Evander Kane – 90 Ryan O' Reilly – 23 Sam Reinhart
88 Jamie McGinn – 15 Jack Eichel – 12 Brian Gionta
26 Matt Moulson – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 22 Johan Larsson
44 Nicolas Deslauriers – 17 David Legwand/59 Tim Schaller – 82 Marcus Foligno

4 Josh Gorges – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
29 Jake McCabe – 47 Zach Bogosian
25 Carlo Colaiacovo/6 Mike Weber – 46 Cody Franson

35 Linus Ullmark
31 Chad Johnson

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