Rasmus Ristolainen keeps adding numbers to his impressive stat sheet. By doing so, he’s putting his name in distinguished company.
Erik Karlsson. P.K. Subban. Ryan McDonagh. Brian Campbell. Gary Galley. Phil Housley.
Obviously, being part of a list like that means the 21-year-old Ristolainen is blossoming into a star.
The Buffalo defenseman heads into Saturday’s home game against Los Angeles fresh off the first hat trick of his career. Thursday’s outing in Calgary brought Ristolainen’s season totals to seven goals, 14 assists and 21 points, tying him for fifth among NHL defensemen.
Through 29 games, Ristolainen is on pace for 20 goals and 60 points. The last Sabres defenseman to reach 50 points was Galley in 1995-96. Ristolainen would become the youngest Buffalo blue-liner to top 50 since Housley did it as a 20-year-old in 1984-85.
Ristolainen is tied with center Ryan O’Reilly for the team lead in multipoint games (six). Among defensemen, only Dallas’ John Klingberg (nine), Ottawa’s Karlsson and San Jose’s Brent Burns (eight each) have more. Ristolainen, Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart are the lone Buffalo players with multigoal games.
Ristolainen has taken 75 shots, tied with Montreal’s Subban for eighth among blue-liners. The Finn has factored in 30.4 percent of Buffalo’s 69 goals. He has 16 points in the last 16 games.
Just imagine if the Sabres used Ristolainen as an offensive defenseman.
While Ristolainen is among the Sabres’ leaders in power-play time, he and Josh Gorges are used as the team’s shutdown defensemen. According to BehindTheNet.ca, Ristolainen starts his five-on-five shifts in the offensive zone just 42 percent of the time, third lowest on the team behind Nicolas Deslauriers (37.2 percent) and David Legwand (41.4 percent).
Ristolainen’s percentage is similar to defensemen such as Boston’s Zdeno Chara (39.8 percent), Colorado’s Erik Johnson (41.9 percent) and the Rangers’ McDonagh (40.1 percent). Fellow point leaders such as Karlsson (54.3 percent) and Klingberg (53.6 percent) get the benefit of starting regularly in the offensive zone.
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma also trusts Ristolainen to play against the opponents’ best forwards. It’s a work in progress. Ristolainen has been on the ice for a team-high 35 goals against. Buffalo has allowed 80 heading into the matchup against the Kings in First Niagara Center.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ristolainen’s defensive play is his ability to avoid penalties. He hasn’t taken a trip to the box since last season, when he held the stick of New Jersey’s Scott Gomez’s with 1:44 left on March 20. Ristolainen is one of only seven players who have appeared in 20 games this season and not taken a penalty. He’s the only one skating more than 17:30 per game.
The 39-game run without a penalty is made even more remarkable by Ristolainen’s ice time. The defenseman, who skates a team-high 24:13 per game, has been on the ice for 15 hours, 39 minutes, 37 seconds since his last penalty. Streaks like that will put him into the discussion for the Lady Byng Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s most gentlemanly player.
Campbell, who won the award in 2012, is the only defenseman to earn the honor since 1954.
Of all Ristolainen’s numbers, the one that sticks out most to him is three. Buffalo has lost three straight, including the 4-3 loss to the Flames on Thursday.
“Risto did a great job on all of our goals,” O’Reilly said. “He’s a big reason why we had a chance there, but we weren’t good enough.”
The Sabres will need to be much better against the Pacific Division-leading Kings, who had won five straight heading into Friday’s game in Pittsburgh to improve to 18-8-1. Buffalo, in a 3-7-3 slump, has fallen to 11-15-3.
“A lot of things aren’t going well for us, and we’re frustrated,” O’Reilly said. “There’s moments when you see it, then we do something to deviate from our game plan and our forecheck and what’s worked for us. It’s frustrating, but it’s something we’re trying to learn.”
The Sabres’ foundation will hold its annual ornament surprise Saturday. Starting at 5 p.m., the players’ wives and girlfriends will sell wrapped, light-up Christmas ornaments in the 100 Level pavilion for $20. Each ornament is autographed by a Sabres player.
All students from kindergarten to 12th grade who have an A or A-equivalent average on their most recent report card are eligible for a free 300 Level II ticket for a home game next week. The offer, which must be redeemed at the arena box office, is for Tuesday’s game against New Jersey and Thursday’s meeting with Anaheim. Additional tickets can be purchased for $25.