News | 7/17/2014 10:12:00 AM | Rob Crean
| Rasmus Ristolainen (Photo: Micheline Veluvolu)
The education of Rasmus Ristolainen is continuing this week in Buffalo.
The Finnish defenseman, selected by the Sabres with the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, reported to Development Camp in even better shape than last year, coming in leaner and lighter due to the rigorous off-season workouts he’s been putting himself through back home.
Don’t be fooled by the new look, though. Ristolainen is just as physical as ever, as evidenced by the numerous big checks he threw during Tuesday night’s intra-squad scrimmage in Buffalo, including one on the latest top pick, Sam Reinhart.
“If I get a chance, I hit. I like to play that physical style, hit and compete hard.”
Ristolainen is coming off a whirlwind rookie year which began in Buffalo, where he played in 19 games for the Sabres before being sent to Rochester in November. In the eventful seven weeks that followed, he learned how difficult the American Hockey League can be, suffered an injury, then recovered in time to join Team Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championship, where he scored the overtime goal over arch-rival Sweden in the gold medal game, cementing a special place in Finnish hockey history.
WATCH: RISTOLAINEN SCORES GOLDEN GOAL FOR FINLAND
When Ristolainen returned to Rochester, he continued to learn and improve under the tutelage of the Amerks coaching staff and veteran players like team captain Drew Bagnall.
“A really aggressive learner,” said Amerks Head Coach Chadd Cassidy in describing Ristolainen. “He took every piece of advice we gave him throughout the year and executed on it. He worked on his nutrition and his workout habits, and it’s paying off for him. He’s got a lot of work to do… but we’ve seen big changes.”
That aggressive learning led to steady improvement throughout his rookie season. He finished with two goals and two assists in 34 NHL games with the Sabres, and added six goals and 14 assists in 34 AHL games with the Amerks. He then added two assists while playing major minutes in Rochester’s five-game playoff battle with the Chicago Wolves.
The next step for the 19-year-old will be to try and solidify a permanent spot on the Sabres blue line.
“I had a pretty good year last year and now I know what it’s going to take to make the team, so I feel a little more comfortable every day,” said Ristolainen.
That group will be tough to crack, however, as the team added a couple of veteran defensemen via free agency earlier this month and already boasts an impressive stable of young blue-liners making their way up the pipeline. If he continues to improve, Ristoalinen might just find himself at the forefront of that group in the very near future.
“It’s a big thing for me,” he said. “I want to show everybody that I’ve been working hard back in Finland. I try to compete, learn every day, and try to be bigger, faster, stronger, better for when (training) camp starts.”